Nuclear Consistency: As Easy as 1-2-3?

In the international civilian nuclear arena, it appears that the Orwellian maxim applies: all states are equal, but some are more equal than others. In early August the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Vietnam are in advanced negotiations for a civilian nuclear cooperation accord, also known as a “123” agreement. By all accounts, the agreement under discussion would not impinge upon Vietnam’s right to enrich uranium, a process that is required to create new reactor fuel, but one that also confers the key ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The deal follows hard on the heels of the Bush administration’s famous (or infamous) 123 agreement with India that allowed a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to continue domestic enrichment and reprocessing while enjoying the benefits of civilian nuclear trade with the United States.

Ignoring the proliferation concerns present in an opaque Indian nuclear system or an embryonic Vietnamese program, what is most troublesome is the government’s rationale for permitting enrichment in Vietnam. According to Philip Crowley, State Department assistant secretary for public affairs, “if Vietnam chooses, exercising its right under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] to enrichment, that is a decision for them to make. It’s not a decision for the United States to make.”

While Mr. Crowley is correct in citing the NPT—Article IV of the treaty declares the “inalienable right” for each country to pursue nuclear energy—his literal interpretation appears in stark contrast to the U.S. attitude to aspirant civilian nuclear states in the Middle East. The recent 123 agreement with the United Arab Emirates, which is on a fast-track to building a nuclear energy program, precludes enrichment and reprocessing. The UAE’s concessions were based on the grounds that the U.S. will not enter into a more lenient 123 agreement with any other nation in the Middle East. The hard line in the UAE deal with regard to enrichment is also evident in the Obama administration’s attitude to Jordan, a steadfast ally that signed the NPT in 1968, despite recently discovering abundant domestic reserves of natural uranium.

This unconcealed double-standard creates two problems: first, it makes it difficult for this administration, which has taken admirable steps to engage the countries in the Middle East, to show that it is not talking out of both sides of its mouth. Second, it undermines the administration’s condemnation of the nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, despite the latter’s egregious proliferation record.

The Obama administration would be better served by adopting a singular nuclear energy cooperation policy. While some may dismiss such a stance as impeding necessary diplomatic flexibility, for a topic as sensitive as nuclear energy and non-proliferation, in regions as tumultuous as the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, unwavering principles are a good thing.