The Obama administration told key lawmakers by letter on Tuesday how it intends to pursue upcoming nuclear trade agreements with one or more partner states, and the decision was believed to shed light on whether such pacts would contain specific conditions aimed at discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, July 28, 2011).
Two senior Obama administration officials wanted to brief key lawmakers in person or by phone this week, but logistics proved impossible and a written notification was sent instead, according to sources.
Details were shrouded in secrecy even after the letters were sent to the chairs and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, but the outlines of a policy determination appeared to be emerging, sources and experts said.
Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher were widely believed ready to unveil an approach in which selected nonproliferation promises are sought on a case-by-case basis in forthcoming nuclear trade agreements.
There was a chance that nations in the Middle East could be deemed eligible only for U.S. nuclear cooperation pacts with strict weapons-prevention terms, informed sources said. However, it remained unclear this week whether the volatile region would be singled out for a different policy approach.
Nuclear trade agreements allow for U.S. companies to build reactors overseas or provide sensitive technologies, nuclear materials or know-how to recipient nations.
The Energy and State departments would neither confirm the emerging policy decision nor respond to a reporter’s related questions by press time.
Officials and issue experts, though, noted that facets of the administration approach have appeared to surface on occasion for more than a year.
“I think the administration will pay lip service to the idea of [a nuclear trade partner] forgoing enrichment and reprocessing, but I would be very surprised if they made renunciation a hard condition of any agreement,” said nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis.
If the emerging policy includes a tougher nonproliferation stance for the Middle East, it comes amid growing international tensions over suspicions that Iran is secretly developing a nuclear-weapon capacity (see GSN, Jan. 10).
There are also serious concerns about the possibility that the entire region could be on the verge of a race to develop nuclear weapons.
A member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family recently suggested the kingdom was interested in building or acquiring atomic arms to counter Iran and Israel, a notion that has seriously rattled many in Washington officialdom (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).
Other Middle Eastern countries have pursued nuclear energy without overtly hinting interest in a military capability, though the potential for surprises remains. The United States and Jordan are said to be close to an agreement in which Washington would give Amman access to nuclear technologies, materials, and assistance. Additionally, the Gulf Cooperation Council—comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—has expressed interest in developing its nuclear energy sector under international guidelines.
Ever since Washington initially inked a civil nuclear cooperation pact with the United Arab Emirates toward the end of George W. Bush’s administration, controversy has been mounting over what trade policy the nation should adopt. When Obama took office in 2009, his State Department renegotiated the UAE agreement, including in the document what had been until then the Middle East nation’s informal pledge not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on its soil.
Enrichment or reprocessing activities are useful in producing reactor fuel for peaceful purposes—such as energy generation, medical applications, and research—but also could open the door to a clandestine diversion of fissile material toward the development of nuclear weapons. Iran is widely accused of launching an illicit nuclear arms program in this way, though Tehran insists that its atomic activities remain entirely peaceful.
Shortly after the UAE deal was struck, the Emirates’ renunciation of a so-called ENR capacity became known as the “gold standard” for nuclear cooperation agreements. Nonproliferation advocates called on the Obama team to seek additional such pledges elsewhere around the world as part of the president’s commitment to lead global efforts to stop the spread of atomic arms.