Washington Watch: The nuclear two-step

Arab efforts to divert attention from Iran undermine Obama’s attempt to unify the int'l community to thwart Teheran’s ambitions.

US President Barack Obama is shifting his focus from health care and the economy to his goal of a world free of nuclear arms – or, more realistically, reducing their spread and threat.
The UN Security Council this week begins deliberations on toughening sanctions on Iran amid uncertainty whether China and Russia will continue to enable Teheran’s nuclear ambitions.
On Thursday Obama is off to Prague to join Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in signing the New START treaty, which provides for further reductions in the Russian and American nuclear arsenals.
The treaty has the backing of prominent Republican figures such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Sen. Richard Lugar, but chances for Senate ratification (it needs 67 votes) appear slim if Sen. John McCain and Republicans keep their vow of “no cooperation for the rest of the year.”
The GOP’s neocons are already branding it “False START” and the mad hatters of the tea party are likely to oppose it as well.
Then it’s back to Washington, where four days later Obama is hosting an international conference on keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. Next month the UN will host a conference to review progress on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Heads of 44 governments are expected to attend next week’s Washington meeting, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Iran and North Korea were not invited, even though they are a major focus of the meeting.
Israel is not an acknowledged nuclear power, although it is believed to have an arsenal of some 200 nuclear warheads, and it refuses to sign the NPT, which would require it to renounce the acquisition of nuclear weapons and to permit international inspectors to go through its facilities. It points to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as examples of why the NPT is ineffective, plus the history of UN hostility, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), toward the Jewish state. Instead it has adopted a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that declares Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. Israel’s highest priority is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – a threat exacerbated by concerns that the ayatollahs might share one with their terrorist brethren.
Obama believes Iran has the “capacity” to build nukes, and that would destabilize the region and “trigger an arms race in the Middle East.” But his goal of “a unified international community” to “ratchet up the pressure” faces some big obstacles.
CHINA AND Russia top the list. They have been running interference for Teheran, insisting on stretching prolonged diplomacy while Iranian centrifuges keep enriching uranium. Both are also selling Iran critical equipment and technology for its nuclear program.
Proponents of tougher sanctions hope that Chinese President Hu Jintao’s decision to attend next week’s conference signals a policy change, and Russia hints it may be coming around, at least in part, to supporting tougher sanctions. Senior Israeli generals and intelligence officials armed with evidence of Iranian intentions have been in Beijing recently lobbying Chinese officials.
Meanwhile, the Arabs may be tossing some wrenches into the works – at Israel’s expense. They might try to hijack both the Washington and NPT conferences and hold them hostage to their demands for pressure on Israel to open its nuclear facilities and scrap its arsenal. For years, Egypt has led a campaign to force Israel to join the NPT, even trying (unsuccessfully) to block NPT renewal unless it signed.
Egypt ran a secret nuclear enrichment program of its own a few years ago, but IAEA inspectors failed to uncover it until Egypt voluntarily disclosed it in 2004 and 2005. At the time, the head of IAEA was Mohamed ElBaradei, a possible candidate for president of Egypt should Hosni Mubarak retire.
That’s the same ElBaradei who excoriated Israel for the 2007 bombing ofthe Syrian nuclear facility – believed to have been built with NorthKorean and Iranian assistance – insisting Israel should have informedhim first so he could check with Damascus to verify the Israelievidence.
Meanwhile, the former Egyptian foreign minister andcurrent head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, is warning of an imminent“Israeli nuclear threat” and said it points to the need for Arab statesto “open a dialogue” with Teheran on the nuclear issue. Arab efforts todivert attention from Iran – although it genuinely frightens the Saudisand their neighbors – undermine Obama’s efforts to unify theinternational community to thwart Teheran’s ambitions.
Syria andIraq have had their nuclear ambitions thwarted by the IAF, and loomingover the conferences in the coming weeks is the fear that unless theinternational community takes decisive action, it may take its nuclearnon-proliferation campaign directly to Iran.