Almaty and Prague

This week, talks over Iran’s nuclear program will resume on Friday and Saturday, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Friday will also mark four years since President Barack Obama delivered his landmark speech in Prague, Czech Republic, where he called for a world free of nuclear weapons and outlined the details of how his first administration would handle nuclear weapons issues.

Negotiators from Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and the United States, or P5+1) will gather again in Almaty following a meeting at the end of February in the Kazakh capital, which seemed to conclude on a more upbeat note than previous meetings. The terms offered by the E3+3 indicated a modest attempt at face-saving measures for Iran that initially resulted in some positive reactions from its officials, but neither side indicated that substantial progress was made, nor that a breakthrough should be expected during this next, follow-on meeting.

President Obama recently said that he believes Iran is “a year or so” away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, however, this would be the capability, and not necessarily the manufacture, of such a weapon. With speculation continuing to circle around Iran’s program, there is a fear that the overriding lack of trust in the region, mixed with a sudden jump in tensions, could trigger a region–wide nuclear proliferation chain (though this is not inevitable) and even nuclear conflict, a topic discussed at a BASIC event on Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Gulf last week in Istanbul. But all of this will also depend on how much other Middle Eastern countries would be drawn to deterrence based on nuclear weapons. They would need to take significant technological steps and leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) behind.

It was this type of proliferation threat and the possibly increasing risks of terrorists obtaining nuclear fissile materials, as well as the existence of stubbornly large nuclear arsenals, that moved President Obama to choose the reduction of nuclear weapons threats as one of his major security and foreign policy initiatives of his first term. To deliver his agenda on April 5, 2009, he chose Prague because it was then celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” away from Communist rule. The President’s speech included a practical approach alongside its idealistic vision.

“Now, let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies –- including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”

Within a year, President Obama reached agreement with Russia to lower the level of deployed nuclear weapons through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and initiated unprecedented biannual Nuclear Security Summits. He has also talked of a more active push to ratify the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and support for the goal of realizing an effectively verifiable Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty (FM(C)T).

Cold War thinking is still prevalent among certain influential circles in Washington. Some continue to view Russia as a key rival, using this to justify calls for nuclear parity between the two countries, and arguing that U.S. national security depends upon the constant deployment of thousands of nuclear weapons. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, though a welcome shift from the past, was not a watershed. Elements of this Cold War thinking are also still present in NATO’s nuclear posture even after its last attempted revamp about two years ago, with the Alliance saying no further movement should be made on the U.S. sub-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe until Russia agrees to something in return; despite the lack of military utility and plans to invest scarce resources in retaining these bombs and a new generation of aircraft assigned to carry them.

The Presidential Nuclear Guidance has yet to be issued, and although the President has indicated that this review would reflect consideration that the United States has retained more nuclear weapons than it needs, it is unlikely to entail a dramatic change. Ultimately, it may take some kind of velvet revolution in strategic thinking to move away from the close attachment to nuclear deterrence.


These are the views of the author.

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