U.S. President George W. Bush, declaring that terrorists armed with nuclear material could pose "the greatest threat to mankind," is proposing a new initiative to restrict sales of nuclear technology and limit the number of nations allowed to produce nuclear fuel. Bush has outlined a seven-point plan that includes a ban on any new states acquiring uranium-reprocessing capabilities. The U.S. proposal is likely to be controversial since it undercuts a key provision of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which allows countries that promise not to develop nuclear weapons to receive broad help in producing their own civilian nuclear power.
Prague, 12 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush, in his lengthiest speech to date on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation, proposed a series of global initiatives aimed at preventing nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands.
"The greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons," he said.
Bush spoke yesterday at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He noted that while a policy of nuclear deterrence successfully kept the peace throughout the Cold War, new circumstances call for further measures to prevent unstable regimes or radical terrorist groups -- with no allegiances to particular states -- from acquiring nuclear material.
Bush said recent events prove that the current rules on nonproliferation, underpinned by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, no longer suffice. "These terrible weapons are becoming easier to acquire, build, hide, and transport. Armed with a single vial of a biological agent or a single nuclear weapon, small groups of fanatics, or failing states, could gain the power to threaten great nations, threaten the world peace," he said.
The U.S. president devoted a large portion of his speech to this month's public admission by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, that Pakistani nuclear scientists had sold proliferation technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
Khan, in his confession, absolved the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of any complicity in or knowledge of the illegal nuclear trade. That has not convinced many international experts.
But leaving this controversial point aside, Bush said Khan's admission proved the existence of an international trade in nuclear materials that must be quashed before terrorists get their hands on ever more dangerous weapons.
Bush unveiled seven major initiatives to strengthen the current Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which since 1970 has governed the international use and trade in nuclear technology. He called for a significant expansion of international intelligence sharing among military and law-enforcement organizations to shut down illegal laboratories, freeze the assets of rogue scientists, and aid in their capture. Bush also called for stricter international border controls and more generous funding for legitimate scientists working in sensitive areas to ensure they are not corrupted by potential nuclear traffickers.
In what most observers took as a reference to Iran, the U.S. president further proposed that only states that sign the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocol on inspections be allowed to import equipment for their civilian nuclear programs. He also asked the 40-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group not to sell uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing equipment to any country that does not already possess such technology, and for all states currently working to acquire such enrichment capabilities to renounce those efforts.
How is Bush's speech likely to be received? And will the measures suggested by the U.S. president genuinely halt the spread of nuclear technology? Gary Samore is a leading weapons-proliferation expert based at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. He told RFE/RL that some of Bush's proposals make sense and are likely to be adopted. He said he agrees with the general thrust of the speech.
"I think some of the measures will go forward. There's general agreement on the importance of strengthening cooperation on law enforcement -- that's not controversial. I think there will be general agreement in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to require stronger safeguards as a condition for a supply of civil nuclear power, so I would expect that to be adopted. There's general agreement on the importance of including as many countries as possible in the efforts to deal with 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet Union," Samore said.
But Samore doubts that other U.S. proposals, such as a blanket ban on any country developing uranium-enrichment facilities, will be accepted. He notes that several members of the 40-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group, such as Brazil and South Korea, have expressed an interest in acquiring an enrichment capability for their civilian programs. Since the group governs by consensus, agreement on the issue is unlikely to be reached.
A further complication is presented by three countries -- Israel, India, and Pakistan -- that have never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but who are acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. Israel will neither confirm nor deny its presumed capability.
Rather than attempting to secure international agreement on too many universal policies, Samore suggests focusing on specific states with a high proliferation potential, using a nuanced "carrot-and-stick" approach. "I think a much more effective policy would be to try to focus energy on dealing with the particular countries that pose a specific problem like Iran and North Korea," he said. "For example, the U.S. approach toward Libya has been tremendously successful in terms of convincing Libya to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for political and economic benefits. And I think a similar approach, geared towards Iran and North Korea, would probably be the most effective way to strengthen the regime."
One issue not mentioned by Bush in his speech was disarmament. Explicitly set out in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is an obligation by the existing nuclear states to work toward eliminating their nuclear weapons. Although the United States has significantly reduced its arsenal of battle-ready nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, the Bush administration's continued reliance on its nuclear deterrent as a cornerstone of its defense policy, and its moves to develop a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons, exposes the United States to accusations of maintaining double standards.
"Critics of the president's speech will point out that he didn't address the issue of disarmament, and I think it's true that for the United States to have moral authority to encourage other countries not to develop nuclear weapons, it's important to demonstrate that the U.S. is prepared to reduce its own nuclear arsenal and to lower the importance of nuclear weapons in overall U.S. military strategy," Samore said.
Muhammad el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, expressed much the same thought in a commentary published in "The New York Times" today. While el-Baradei praised Bush for his call to strengthen export regimes and border controls, he noted, "We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction, yet morally acceptable to others to rely on them for security."
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