Thinking Big on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the deadliest threats to the human race. The United States and Russia can make the world radically safer by shaping a global nuclear regime to reduce nuclear arsenals, raise the bar against nuclear wannabes, and protect nuclear materials from terrorists.

When they met in London in April, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, set in motion the negotiation of a new strategic arms reduction agreement – and discussed the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world, a theme Obama returned to a few days later in his Prague speech. The United States and Russia must agree to reduce and control the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals if we expect other states to curtail their nuclear aspirations.

Over 30 countries have declared an intent to develop new nuclear programs – 14 in the Middle East and North Africa. Should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, there is little doubt that others in the region will follow suit. Now is the time for the United States and Russia to revitalize the framework for nuclear security, not after countries acquire a nuclear weapon.

The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provides the foundation for action. In May 2010, its signatories have a chance to adapt the treaty to strengthen the firewalls against proliferation and weaponization. Negotiations have already started. To succeed, the United States and Russia must breathe life into the bargain that underlies the NPT: the nuclear weapons states disarm; non-nuclear weapons states eschew nuclear weapons and gain access to civil nuclear technology; and all commit to prevent nuclear proliferation.

First, Washington and Moscow should agree this year to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to no more than 1500 deployed warheads on each side. In anticipation of further deeper nuclear reductions, they should begin parallel discussions on how to address non-deployed strategic warheads and tactical nuclear weapons. (The United States should also ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an action already taken by Russia.)

Second, Washington and Moscow should offer an agenda to strengthen the NPT regime. This should include: a diplomatic plan to secure universal accession to the NPT and to the Additional Protocol, which strengthens safeguards against the misuse of civil nuclear technology, and launch of a negotiation to ban the production of new fissile material.

Third, Washington and Moscow should reenergize their cooperation to ensure that highly enriched uranium (HEU) and other nuclear weapons-usable materials are securely stored. Where necessary and appropriate, they should work out arrangements to take back HEU from third countries. That could be blended down into low enriched uranium (LEU) for use as fuel for nuclear reactors, as the Russians have been doing for years.

Fourth, Washington and Moscow should develop a program to produce LEU fuel under international supervision and make it available at reasonable cost to any non-nuclear weapons state in full compliance with its NPT obligations. They should also formalize Russia’s offer to help counties dispose of spent nuclear fuel.

Fifth, Washington and Moscow should spur the UN Permanent Five-plus-Germany effort to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear enrichment or, at the least, to place its entire nuclear program under international supervision. The Permanent Five and Germany should make the choice before Iran as stark as possible: incentives – including the prospect of normalization of relations with the United States and the West – if Tehran makes the right choice; real costs – including Russian and Chinese support for stiffer sanctions – if Iran continues its current course.

This is a big initiative that builds on issues where U.S. and Russian interests converge. It could drive the U.S.-Russian relationship in a more positive direction. It has plenty to interest the Russians: deep mutual reductions in nuclear weapons, a global leadership role boosting Moscow’s political stature, and long-term commercial benefits from supplying LEU fuel. Washington could use this to press Moscow to adopt a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear program.

This is a win-win play for the United States and Russia. And it would be a big win for a safer world. Despite the NPT’s limitations, the picture is less grim than President John Kennedy’s fear of 20 nuclear-armed states by 1970. Strengthening the firewalls now against proliferation could curtail a race to weaponization that would be destabilizing and potentially deadly.

Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov should start work on this new nuclear bargain on Thursday. It would make a fine deliverable to formalize at the July Obama-Medvedev summit in Moscow.