Obama’s Other Nuclear Headache
In negotiating civilian nuclear-cooperation agreements, the administration must stick to its “gold standard” of nonproliferation conditions.


Henry Sokolski

In the heat of the running debate over New START, it’s easy to assume that partisan politics has overwhelmed good will when it comes to the issue of nuclear controls. It also would be wrong. In the matter of another nuclear headache — how to spread civilian nuclear technology, which many countries want, without spreading the means to make bombs — both liberals and conservatives are worried that President Obama is about the make the wrong call.

The issue at hand is whether or not two proposed U.S. civilian nuclear-cooperation agreements — one with Jordan, the other with Vietnam — should be conditioned upon these states’ forswearing the making of nuclear fuel (a procedure that can bring states to the very brink of acquiring bombs) and opening up their facilities to intrusive nuclear inspections to help verify that they are adhering to their pledge.

This question is now all the more salient given news that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program is actually up and running, ready for possible export to other states. Since the Obama administration has publicly argued that all states have a right to make nuclear fuel, it certainly will be difficult to dissuade other countries from following North Korea’s example (or even seeking its help) unless we can get them to forswear making nuclear fuel in the first instance.

This possibility certainly was a key reason why President Obama insisted on these conditions last year when he finalized a U.S. civilian nuclear-cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that the Bush administration had negotiated. At the time, Obama officials proclaimed the UAE conditions as a new nonproliferation “gold standard.” Without those conditions, it is doubtful that Congress, which has long complained about the UAE’s lack of export controls to Iran, would have allowed the agreement to come into force. Now, just a year later, it looks as if the administration is willing to trash the standard that it heralded.

Over the summer, word leaked to the press that State Department diplomats had initialed deals with Vietnam and Jordan that lacked the UAE nonproliferation conditions. Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle were livid. They had gotten their bosses to carry water on the UAE deal on the basis of the conditions’ being a new standard for U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreements. Now they were being played for chumps.

We didn’t claim it was “the gold standard,” one State Department official explained. “It’s just ‘a standard.’” An intriguing theory, but if the U.S. backs off applying the standard in case of Vietnam or Jordan, it pretty much kills the standard altogether. Jordanian officials, it is reported, have already complained that if the U.S. drops the conditions in its agreement with Vietnam but insists on them for Jordan, it is simply conveying its distrust of Muslims.

Yet, if the administration says yes to Vietnam and Jordan without the UAE conditions, it’s unclear how it can refuse Seoul’s demands that South Korea be allowed to recycle its spent fuel (a fuel-making process that would enable a state to separate out plutonium, which can be made into bombs). More important, the deal with the UAE stipulates that if the U.S. reaches a nuclear-cooperation agreement with any other Middle Eastern state that has more generous terms than the one struck with the UAE, then the UAE has the right to renegotiate the deal to secure equal treatment. Stray from demanding the UAE nonproliferation conditions in any future agreement, then, and you pretty much transmute the gold standard into lead.


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