PRAGUE — Castingaside years of rancor, President Barack Obama and Russian PresidentDmitry Medvedev on Thursday signed the biggest nuclear arms pact in ageneration, lacing the moment with new warnings of sanctions for anintransigent Iran.
The treaty, sealed after months of haltingnegotiation, is significant not just for what it does but for what itsymbolizes: a fresh start for the United States and Russia, andevidence to a watching world that nuclear disarmament is more than agoal.
The pact commits their nations to slash the number ofstrategic nuclear warheads by one-third and more than halve the numberof missiles, submarines and bombers carrying them.
That stillleaves the two countries with enough nuclear firepower to ensure mutualdestruction several times over, but the move sets a foundation fordeeper reductions, which both sides are already pursuing.
"Itsends a signal around the world that the United States and Russia areprepared to once again take leadership," Obama said moments after heand Medvedev signed the treaty in a gleaming, ornate hall in the CzechRepublic's presidential castle.
Said the Russian president: "The entire world community has won."
Thepact will shrink the limit of nuclear warheads to 1,550 per countryover seven years, about a third less than the 2,200 currently permitted.
Loomingover the celebration was Iran, which in the face of internationalpressures continues to assert that its uranium enrichment program isfor peaceful purposes, not for weapons as suspected. Six powers — theUS Russia, Britain, France, Germany and now China — are in talks inNew York about a fourth set of United Nations sanctions to pressureIran into compliance.
"We cannot turn a blind eye to this,"Medvedev said in a show of solidarity. But he said he was frank withObama about how far Russia was willing to go, favoring only what hecalled "smart" sanctions that might have hope of changing behavior.
Russia'sDeputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov later elaborated by saying, forexample, that Russia would not endorse a total embargo on the deliveryof refined petroleum products into Iran. Such products might betargeted in other ways, or sanctions on Iran's energy sector might beavoided altogether to avoid running into deal-breaking opposition fromRussia or China.
The nuclear arms pact now faces a ratificationvote in the Russian legislature and the U.S. Senate. At home, Obama'steam is struggling to get the necessary votes, and the presidenthimself is directly involved. He said he was confident that Democratsand Republicans would see that the treaty protects US interests — anupbeat view of bipartisanship in a town where it's been scarce.
"I feel confident that we are going to be able to get it ratified," Obama said.
Butprospects of the treaty's ratification are still uncertain. Democraticofficials said they hoped the treaty could be ratified by the end ofthe year, but that the timing of the debate would depend upon thesubmission of technical documents accompanying the treaty.
Thetreaty's ratification also would depend on Republican support, whichlawmakers were reluctant to extend just yet. While Democrats hold amajority in the Senate, they are one vote shy of the 60 votes that areoften needed to overcome procedural hurdles during debate. And 67 votesare needed to ratify the treaty.
Negotiations between the USand Russia got bogged down in disputes, including Russia's objection toUS missile defense plans for Europe. The Kremlin is still concernedabout the plan but sought to tamp down talk it would withdraw from thenew treaty if there is a buildup in the missile defense system. Russiacodified its option to withdraw in a statement in connection with thetreaty.
Obama said the treaty itself built trust that would helpin solving any differences on the issue. Responded Medvedev: "I am anoptimist as well as my American colleague. I believe that we will beable to reach a compromise."
Beyond slashing nuclear arsenals,the US sees the new "START" treaty, as it is known, as a key part ofefforts to reset ties with Russia, badly strained under the Bushadministration, and engage Moscow more in dealing with globalchallenges, including the nuclear arsenal of North Korea and nuclearambitions of Iran.
The new pact is only part of the Obamaadministration's new nuclear strategy. It was signed only days afterthe White House announced a fundamental shift in its policy on the useof nuclear weapons, calling the acquisition of atomic arms byterrorists or rogue states a worse menace than the Cold War threat ofmutual annihilation.
Other US nuclear initiatives will followthe Prague signing. Leaders from more than 40 countries will gather inWashington next week to discuss improvements in securing nuclearmaterials.
The White House plans to lead calls for disarmament inMay at the United Nations during an international conference onstrengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The treatysigned Thursday is the most significant nuclear disarmament pact in ageneration, and Medvedev has lauded it as "an important step" indisarmament and arms control efforts.
U.N. Secretary-General BanKi-moon welcomed the signing of the New START Treaty as a "milestone inthe international efforts to advance nuclear disarmament and to achievea world free of nuclear weapons," UN associate spokesman Farhan Haqsaid.
Russian analysts say Russia needs the deal to ease theburden of replacing a large number of aging Soviet-built missiles."This treaty is in Russia's best interests," said Sergei Rogov, thehead of the USA and Canada Institute, an influential think tank.
Insidethe hall, the anticipated moment came as the two presidents picked uptheir pens, glanced at each other and grinned as they signed severaldocuments, with aides transferring the papers back and forth so allwould have both signatures. When it was done, the leaders seemedmomentarily at a loss, with Medvedev flashing a smile and a shrugbefore they stood to shake hands.
While the Russian parliament islikely to follow the Kremlin's lead, the ratification process in theUS Senate could be troublesome. Fearing potential trouble, Moscow hassaid that Russian lawmakers will synchronize their moves to ratify thedeal with the US legislators.
Sensitive to East Europeanconcerns, Obama is tending to other business while in Prague — hostinga dinner for leaders from 11 Central and Eastern European nationsformerly in or near Moscow's orbit, who worry about the Kremlin'spost-communist push for influence.
Under Obama, Russiancooperation on key priorities, from helping to prevent a nuclear-armedIran to opening supply routes for the US military into Afghanistanand agreeing to new arms reductions, has increased — though not by ahuge amount.