In a significant shift in U.S. policy, the Bush administration announced this week that it will oppose provisions for inspections and verification as part of an international treaty that would ban production of nuclear weapons materials.
For several years the United States and other nations have pursued the treaty, which would ban new production by any state of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons. At an arms-control meeting this week in Geneva, the Bush administration told other nations it still supported a treaty, but not verification.
Administration officials, who have showed skepticism in the past about the effectiveness of international weapons inspections, said they made the decision after concluding that such a system would cost too much, would require overly intrusive inspections and would not guarantee compliance with the treaty. They declined, however, to explain in detail how they believed U.S. security would be harmed by creating a plan to monitor the treaty.
Arms-control specialists reacted negatively, saying the change in U.S. position will dramatically weaken any treaty and make it harder to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. The announcement, they said, also virtually kills a 10-year international effort to lure countries such as Pakistan, India and Israel into accepting some oversight of their nuclear production programs.
The announcement at the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament comes several months after President Bush declared it a top priority of his administration to prevent the production and trafficking in nuclear materials, and as the administration works to blunt criticism by Democrats and others that it has failed to work effectively with the United Nations and other international bodies on such vital global concerns.
"The president has said his priority is to block the spread of nuclear materials to rogue states and terrorists, and a verifiable ban on the production of such materials is an essential part of any such strategy," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. "Which is why it is so surprising and baffling that the administration is not supporting a meaningful treaty."
The U.N. Conference on Disarmament includes 66 countries as members. It had announced its intent to start negotiations this year toward a verifiable international agreement known as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) that would ban production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons. The two ingredients are used for setting off a chain-reaction nuclear explosion.
The treaty wouldn't affect existing stockpiles or production for non-weapons purposes, such as energy or medical research. Mainly, it was designed to reinforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to impose restraints on India, Pakistan and Israel, whose nuclear programs operate outside the reach of NPT inspectors.
In 2000, all three countries, the Clinton administration and the rest of the conference members agreed to pursue negotiation of the treaty. But last year, when the possibility of starting negotiations arose in the conference, the Bush administration decided to review its position on the FMCT.
On Thursday, Jackie Wolcott Sanders, the U.S. representative, said the United States would support the treaty, but without a way to verify compliance.
The State Department later released a statement saying that an internal review had concluded that an inspection regime "would have been so extensive that it could compromise key signatories' core national security interests and so costly that many countries will be hesitant to accept it."
Furthermore, "even with extensive verification measures, we will not have high confidence in our ability to monitor compliance with an FMCT." Bush administration officials would not elaborate on the statement or on the U.S. position, except to say they would send a delegation to Geneva to better explain the position to the conference. But the conference goes on recess in early September, leaving virtually no time to begin formal negotiations on the treaty before the end of the current presidential term. Since the disarmament conference can adopt a treaty only by consensus, the American position makes it highly unlikely that a verification system will be included in a future agreement.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry has supported the verification provision and has criticized the administration's policies on weapons of mass destruction, particularly after none turned up in Iraq after the war.
Early this year, after revelations that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had sold nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea, Bush gave a major speech on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. He proposed several new measures, including encouraging all nations to criminalize proliferation and secure sensitive materials within their borders.
While declaring nonproliferation a priority, however, the administration has opposed other arms-control treaties that rely on inspection regimes.
In 2001, the administration opposed attempts to create an inspections regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. It has signed an arms-reduction deal with Russia that doesn't include new verification mechanisms, and in its first year in office, the administration pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.