Obama Team Reveals Nuclear Trade, Nonproliferation Decision on Capitol Hill

Jan. 11, 2012, 9:28 a.m.

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.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said, though, that what was ap­pro­pri­ate for the United Ar­ab Emir­ates is not ne­ces­sar­ily use­ful in ne­go­ti­ations around the world.

Even though the Obama team min­ted the term “gold stand­ard,” its of­fi­cials “seemed very skep­tic­al” about ap­ply­ing it else­where “be­cause they be­lieved that the UAE un­der­tak­ing was vol­un­tary, and they had very few hopes of con­vin­cing oth­er states to agree to sim­il­ar re­stric­tions,” Lewis, who dir­ects the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies’ East Asia pro­gram, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

Seni­or lead­ers have in­stead counseled that a case-by-case ap­proach might al­low Wash­ing­ton to more ef­fect­ively cham­pi­on U.S. nuc­le­ar in­dustry in­terests abroad and ex­ert in­flu­ence on for­eign na­tions’ non­pro­lif­er­a­tion policies. 

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­gaged in on­go­ing dis­cus­sions, in­clud­ing with friends and al­lies, in sup­port of the pres­id­ent’s com­mit­ment to build a new frame­work for civil nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion so that coun­tries can ac­cess peace­ful power without in­creas­ing the risks of pro­lif­er­a­tion,” an En­ergy De­part­ment spokes­wo­man said last Janu­ary. “That ef­fort is driv­en by the pres­id­ent’s firm com­mit­ment to re­duce nuc­le­ar risks around the world.”

The toughest non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­vi­sions might ap­pear in some, but pos­sibly not all, of Wash­ing­ton’s civil nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments, which are gov­erned by Sec­tion 123 of the Atom­ic En­ergy Act, a seni­or White House of­fi­cial said in Novem­ber 2010.

“We will ap­ply the gold stand­ard,” Gary Sam­ore, the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil co­ordin­at­or for arms con­trol and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, said at a Wash­ing­ton event at the time. “The only ques­tion is wheth­er you try to do that across the board, on a uni­ver­sal basis — and we know that that’s go­ing to run in­to some very ser­i­ous dif­fi­culties in the case of some ‘123’ agree­ments — or wheth­er we’re go­ing to be more se­lect­ive about it.”

Sam­ore said it was “not as though we’re giv­ing up on the gold stand­ard,” but “the only ques­tion is how do you ap­ply it, how broadly do you seek to ap­ply it” (see GSN, Nov. 19, 2010).

De­bate over the mat­ter flared dur­ing the sum­mer of 2010. The for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee chairs and rank­ing mem­bers learned then from an ad­min­is­tra­tion brief­ing that Jordan and Vi­et­nam were un­likely to ac­cept a no-ENR pledge and that bi­lat­er­al pacts would non­ethe­less pro­ceed without these non­pro­lif­er­a­tion terms.

“For Jordan and Vi­et­nam and oth­er coun­tries, [the ad­min­is­tra­tion] seemed re­luct­ant to push for a full, UAE-like re­nun­ci­ation of en­rich­ment and re­pro­cessing,” said Lewis, not­ing that Obama na­tion­al se­cur­ity of­fi­cials gen­er­ally have been more in­ter­ested in of­fer­ing com­pre­hens­ive fuel ser­vices for na­tions eager to use peace­ful nuc­le­ar en­ergy.

Oth­er na­tions on the ho­ri­zon for atom­ic pacts with the United States — to in­clude a rene­go­ti­ated agree­ment with South Korea by 2014 and a pos­sible first-ever atom­ic ac­cord with Saudi Ar­a­bia — could prove even more prob­lem­at­ic, ac­cord­ing to is­sue-watch­ers.

“It’s pretty clear that our dip­lo­mats had a hard time selling that kind of con­di­tion to the South Koreans or the Jord­ani­ans — to say noth­ing of the Saudis — and that they would prefer some­how to be let off the hook,” said Henry Sokol­ski, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Policy Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter.

Still, law­makers in both the House and Sen­ate said in 2010 they were alarmed that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was not work­ing harder to bring its nuc­le­ar trade part­ners on­board with the gold stand­ard. 

In the House, For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en, R-Fla., last year teamed with rank­ing mem­ber Howard Ber­man, D-Cal­if., and eight oth­er co­spon­sors to of­fer le­gis­la­tion, H.R. 1280, that would al­low Con­gress to take up-or-down votes on pacts that omit gold-stand­ard pro­vi­sions.

As the Atom­ic En­ergy Act cur­rently stands, a so-called 123 agree­ment must be sub­mit­ted to Con­gress for re­view but can enter in­to force if law­makers take no ac­tion with­in 90 days of con­tinu­ous le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion. The re­form meas­ure, which would ex­tend this looser con­gres­sion­al re­view pro­cess only to pacts that in­clude a no-ENR pledge, passed the House com­mit­tee last April but has not yet gone to a floor vote (see GSN, April 15, 2011).

Mean­while, the White House re­spon­ded to the bi­par­tis­an con­cerns by launch­ing an in­ter­agency re­view of its over­all non­pro­lif­er­a­tion policy for nuc­le­ar trade pacts, which ap­pears to have con­tin­ued through late last year. 

As the in­tern­al policy re­view played out in fall 2010, Pone­man not­ably squared off with then-Deputy Sec­ret­ary of State James Stein­berg over the is­sue (see GSN, Jan. 25, 2011).

Be­fore leav­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vice last Ju­ly, Stein­berg re­portedly ar­gued that ad­voc­at­ing for the gold stand­ard around the globe would help Obama hon­or his 2009 pledge in Prague to pur­sue “an end to the ded­ic­ated pro­duc­tion of weapons-grade ma­ter­i­als.” For his part, Pone­man is said to have held that de­mand­ing a gold-stand­ard prom­ise could po­ten­tially ali­en­ate part­ner na­tions and send their nuc­le­ar busi­ness to in­ter­na­tion­al com­pet­it­ors that im­pose few­er re­stric­tions on sales, such as Rus­sia and France.

Now that the ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears to have made a policy de­term­in­a­tion on wheth­er, or in which cases, to seek a no-ENR pledge with its nuc­le­ar trade in­ter­locutors, Pone­man and Tauscher were eager to quickly brief Ros-Le­htin­en and Ber­man on the House side and Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Kerry, D-Mass., and rank­ing mem­ber Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ac­cord­ing to Cap­it­ol Hill sources.

“There is this cer­tain pres­sure for a brief­ing on a de­cision that they have made,” one con­gres­sion­al staffer said this week. “If it is about ENR, they made that de­cision long ago so it is un­clear why they need to talk to mem­bers im­me­di­ately.”

This staff aide and oth­ers agreed to con­trib­ute to this art­icle on con­di­tion of not be­ing named be­cause they were not au­thor­ized to ad­dress the is­sue pub­licly.

The ur­gent ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quests ini­tially were for Pone­man and Tauscher to dis­cuss the mat­ter with law­makers in per­son, but Con­gress will not be back in ses­sion un­til later this month.

With mem­bers on travel, it ap­peared earli­er that brief­ings for them might be­gin this week by tele­phone. Even that op­tion proved dif­fi­cult for at least some of the law­makers, though; Ros-Le­htin­en, for one, is sev­er­al time zones away, ac­com­pa­ny­ing House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., on a con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion to the Middle East.

Now that the writ­ten no­ti­fic­a­tions were sent, brief­ings for staff and mem­bers might fol­low, though the tim­ing is as yet un­cer­tain, ac­cord­ing to sources.

Lead­ing up to the in­ten­ded brief­ings, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials de­clined to pre­view the out­come of their policy de­lib­er­a­tions for con­gres­sion­al aides, who as is­sue spe­cial­ists are nor­mally ex­pec­ted to pre­pare law­makers for such meet­ings, sources said.

Out­side nuc­le­ar policy ex­perts sur­mised that Tauscher and Pone­man were hop­ing that law­makers would hear them out be­fore be­ing swayed by con­gres­sion­al staffers, who might be more read­ily armed with doubts about the ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proach to the long-pending mat­ter.

“Law­makers would ask more in­formed ques­tions with the be­ne­fit of staff pre­par­a­tion,” Lewis said. “Pone­man and Tauscher ought to be more than cap­able of de­fend­ing the policy de­cision to well briefed law­makers. If they can’t handle the scru­tiny, maybe it’s not such a great policy.”

Sokol­ski, speak­ing in a phone in­ter­view, had a sim­il­ar take.

The Obama team’s de­cision not to pre-brief con­gres­sion­al staff “sug­gests that they don’t want the mem­bers to un­der­stand the com­plex­it­ies be­fore they check off on their new policy or that they are not all that proud of the policy they have pro­duced, or both,” he said.

“Whatever they are go­ing to brief the [com­mit­tee] prin­cipals about, I would be as­ton­ished if it didn’t some­how dis­ap­point, with re­gard to de­liv­ery on the kind of con­di­tions that were co­di­fied in the United Ar­ab Emir­ates-U.S. nuc­le­ar co­oper­at­ive agree­ment,” Sokol­ski said.

“If it did, they would be trum­pet­ing it pub­licly,” said the former George H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion Pentagon policy of­fi­cial, quickly adding that he could not fully eval­u­ate the policy un­til more de­tails be­come known.

The next U.S nuc­le­ar trade agree­ment an­ti­cip­ated for sub­mis­sion to Cap­it­ol Hill could be one with Jordan, which a key Wash­ing­ton dip­lo­mat said last March was “very, very close” to com­ple­tion, “but, to be fair, the Jord­ani­an gov­ern­ment had oth­er is­sues on its mind at the mo­ment.”

The dip­lo­mat, Richard Strat­ford, dir­ects the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy, Safety and Se­cur­ity Of­fice in the State De­part­ment’s In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Bur­eau. He ap­peared to be re­fer­ring to Am­man’s un­ease with pro­ceed­ing on a pact with Wash­ing­ton in the midst of the Ar­ab Spring.

Though it is un­clear wheth­er that ac­cord might soon be ready to pro­ceed, Strat­ford hin­ted last year that the near-fi­nal text in­cluded some form of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pledge.

“One thing I would like to cor­rect is that you see again and again in the press that Jordan, of course, will nev­er do what the United Ar­ab Emir­ates did. Well, I wouldn’t count on that,” he said, speak­ing at a Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence on non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. “If they are pre­pared to en­gage at some point in the fu­ture, I think we will come to con­clu­sion and I think that the Con­gress will like the res­ult.”

One widely dis­cussed pos­sib­il­ity is that Jordan might agree to set aside a right to en­rich or re­pro­cess for a cer­tain num­ber of years. However, it was un­clear wheth­er such a pledge might ex­pire be­fore the dur­a­tion of Am­man’s ac­cord with Wash­ing­ton was com­plete.

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