President Obama will address the American public in his State of the Union address tomorrow. Last week U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke in Munich, suggesting that the President will address their shared interests in “advancing a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, [and] reduce[d] global stockpiles of nuclear materials”.
Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament were top national security and foreign policy priorities during the first half of Obama’s first term, but much of the momentum was lost in 2011-12. It is anticipated that he will announce on Tuesday a new policy directive on U.S. nuclear reductions that arises from his 2010 nuclear posture review. It was leaked last week that the Administration was ready to endorse a smaller U.S. arsenal “targeting fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China and several other countries” comprised of 1,000-1,100 warheads, rather than the 1,550 agreed upon in the 2010 New START treaty with Russia. The Administration has been examining these nuclear policy options over the past two years behind closed doors, and it was recently reported that “the options have been on Mr. Obama’s desk for months” but he did not want to sign anything until after the election.
If this is the case, such a plan will help President Obama push forward on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. His focus on U.S. nuclear reductions sets an important precedent for global nuclear disarmament, but also indicates changing attitudes towards the role of nuclear deterrence. It is clear that opinions are fluctuating about the value of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons; the costly arsenals aren’t stacking up against current global threats and are eating away at deteriorating budgets.
However, implementing such changes in the United States would not be straightforward. There was strong opposition by Republicans in the Senate – the U.S. body responsible for treaty ratification – to initial reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal under New START. Any formal follow-on treaty will require more than Presidential will. As such, the Administration may explore alternative avenues, such as an informal agreement with President Putin, which would not require Senate ratification.
Obama is also likely to address relations with Iran in the State of the Union. Last week Vice President Biden reiterated his words from four years ago, that the Obama Administration is “willing to talk to Iran”, adding also, that “there is still time, there is still space for diplomacy, backed by pressure to succeed.” Biden suggested that the ball was in Iran’s court to make the first move, which was countered on the same day by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who expressed strong skepticism over the possibilities of success in bilateral talks with the United States, stating: “The Iranian nation will not negotiate under pressure… direct talks will not solve any problems”. He has, however, left open the door to his Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, to engage in such talks, and it is generally assumed that these hold the best chances of any progress on the nuclear file with Iran. The E3+3 (P5+1) meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan on February 26th, and bilateral talks are expected some weeks later.
The IAEA is also scheduled to meet with Iran this week on Wednesday. They will again attempt to agree on a “structured approach” to resolve disputes over the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.
These are the personal views of the author.