What’s ahead for the United States and the United Kingdom?

Tomorrow the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will host a hearing on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Witnesses will include Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the U.S.’ lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear talks, and David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Last weekend the six-month deadline (July 20th) for the interim Joint Plan of Action passed without a final deal being reached. However, it was claimed that significant progress was made and the negotiating parties agreed to extend the provisions of the interim deal through to November 24th, which is the date of the new deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement. It is widely believed that this new deadline will be unextendable.

While the P5+1 and Iran get underway to fully comply and complete the measures of the interim deal over the next few months, the United States and the United Kingdom will be in the process of finalizing their nuclear cooperation arrangements under the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA). This 1958 agreement (codified ten years prior to the NPT) allows for the exchange and transfer of classified information about atomic weapons and nuclear technology. It deeply strengthened the special relationship shared between these two allies after a decade of nuclear separation with the McMahon Act (1946), and shaped both nuclear programs (but particularly the UK’s) through the following half century. Last week President Obama announced his approval of the Amendment to the MDA and passed it onto Congress for ratification, which will further the agreement for another ten years.

The MDA will most likely sail through U.S. Congress (they have 60 days to consider it) and UK Parliament (it will be laid for 21 sitting days later in the year) without much attention. In fact, it would be much more newsworthy if there was a cessation or any change to the transatlantic relationship that most of us have come to take for granted. This arrangement is seen as central to an important ongoing relationship – a solid rock in an uncertain and dangerous world. But the special relationship is built on so much more than intelligence sharing and defence cooperation. In a press conference last September, recent UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague clarified: “We are not only each other’s largest investors in each of our countries, one to the other, but the fact is that every day almost one million people go to work in America for British companies that are in the United States, just as more than one million people go to work here in Great Britain for American companies that are here. So we are enormously tied together, obviously. And we are committed to making both the U.S.-UK and the U.S.-EU relationships even stronger drivers of our prosperity.

The MDA comes at an important moment in UK nuclear decision-taking. The final decision on the Main Gate acquisition is planned for the next Parliament (assumed for 2016). The referendum vote on Scottish independence is in seven weeks’ time, and the basing of Trident submarines out of Scotland is being used by the Yes campaign as a highly symbolic pointer of London’s neglect of Scottish opinion. If an independent Scotland wants Trident gone, HMG will need to come up with a contingency plan quickly. All the while, the UK’s political parties are gearing up for the 2015 general election next May in which defence spending and alliance relationships (including NATO and the EU) will feature.

Beyond the domestic complexity, the MDA agreement sits uncomfortably amongst some multilateral commitments. Specifically looking ahead to next year at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference: the United Kingdom and the United States (along with the other nuclear weapon states: Russia, France and China) are obligated under the NPT to work towards disarmament negotiations – so what kind of signal does renewing the MDA send, especially to those already frustrated non-nuclear weapon states who have agreed not to pursue independent nuclear weapon programs and not to proliferate any nuclear material or technology? Not only does the MDA undermine the spirit of the NPT, independent legal advice obtained by BASIC and the Acronym Institute in 2004 (ahead of the MDA’s previous renewal) indicated that NPT obligations take precedence over the MDA in international law and in their legal opinion, it was “strongly arguable that the renewal of the MDA is in breach of the NPT.”

While the MDA can be considered a symbolic tribute to the ongoing multi-tiered Anglo-American relationship, it also magnifies the exceptionalism that is attributed to those who are in the nuclear weapon game and those who are not. In time, such exceptionalism expands the “us” versus “them” mentality that undermines cooperation amongst countries on other important global issues.

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