Lawmakers and issue experts are joining forces across party lines in an effort to persuade Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to schedule a hearing on a controversial Obama administration policy on nuclear trade (see GSN, Feb. 17).
The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has begun some political arm-twisting aimed at heightening pressure on the chairman and the Obama administration over the newly articulated policy. In addition, this week nearly 20 nuclear nonproliferation experts from across the political divide contacted Kerry to urge that he summon witnesses to testify about the matter.
Senior officials from the State and Energy departments in January told key congressional committees that they would take a “case-by-case” approach in deciding whether to demand the strictest nonproliferation measures in trade deals that give non-nuclear-armed nations access to U.S. atomic technology and materials. The new policy was the result of a divisive interagency review that began in 2010 (see GSN, Jan. 25, 2011).
The policy would be applied to new U.S. talks with Vietnam, according to a Jan. 10 letter signed by Daniel Poneman, the deputy Energy secretary, and Ellen Tauscher, then-undersecretary of State for arms control and international security (see GSN, Jan. 12).
Administration officials have said they would urge selected nuclear- cooperation partner nations to pledge not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on their soil, but would not necessarily seek such a commitment in every negotiation.
A State Department spokesman has branded a “no-ENR” promise the “gold standard” for advancing nonproliferation objectives, modeled after an agreement that Washington sealed with the United Arab Emirates in 2009.
Enrichment and reprocessing activities can be conducted as part of a civil nuclear-energy program, but also can increase the risk that a nation will secretly divert sensitive materials to military efforts aimed at building an atomic weapon. Iran is suspected of pursuing a nuclear-arms capacity under the guise of a program that its leaders insist is solely dedicated to peaceful energy generation.
The White House is now grappling with heightened international tensions over the Iranian situation, as Tehran appears to move closer to a weapon capacity. At the same time, the Tauscher-Poneman letter describing the administration's nuclear-trade policy indicated that a no-ENR commitment was not possible in every deal because Washington must “negotiate agreements that our partners can accept and that open doors to U.S. industry” (see GSN, Jan. 23).
Over the past two months, the issue has become highly charged.
Three of the top four House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats and Republicans -- all except for Kerry -- are known to have protested that the administration could miss crucial opportunities to prevent the spread of nuclear arms if it fails to more actively advocate an embrace of the gold standard worldwide.
In recent weeks, a New York Times editorial, as well as a published commentary by political opposites Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and former State Department official John Bolton, urged the White House to rethink its trade and nonproliferation approach.
Critics say they are concerned that the administration might seek to complete negotiations with Jordan and Vietnam on trade pacts that stop short of meeting the gold standard. Perhaps even more worrisome are indications that Washington could launch long-anticipated nuclear-cooperation talks with Saudi Arabia, despite comments from the royal family suggesting that it might seek to build or acquire atomic weapons to counter Iran and Israel (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).
The Senate committee’s Democratic and Republican staff directors initially agreed to schedule a hearing this year on nuclear trade and nonproliferation policy. The Democratic-led staff’s draft plans for the hearing were quickly nixed without explanation, though, according to congressional aides.
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