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U.S. Envoy Takes Issue with Nonproliferation Lingo for Nuclear Trade Pacts
OMAHA, Neb. -- The State Department’s top arms control diplomat on Thursday said the most proliferation-resistant nuclear trade agreements the United States achieves with foreign partners should not be afforded a special name or status, despite notable efforts by the agency to embrace the idea in past years (see GSN, July 27).
“You know, I really don’t like this term, the ‘gold standard,’” Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said during a conference here on nuclear deterrence.
She was referring to a moniker coined in August 2010 by then-State Department spokesman Philip Crowley to describe an accord sealed a year earlier in which the United Arab Emirates pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on its soil, in exchange for access to U.S. atomic technology and materials.
These activities can be useful for civil atomic energy production, but also run the risk that sensitive materials could be secretly diverted to a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Following Crowley’s 2010 remarks, the nuclear trade and nonproliferation community widely adopted use of the phrase “gold standard” as shorthand for any nation’s prospective promise not to domestically process nuclear fuel. Such agreements might allow nations, though, to send sensitive materials abroad for enrichment or reprocessing, an option now being contemplated by Taiwan, among others (see GSN, July 19).
“In my view, our nonproliferation policy overall is always pursuing the highest standards with regard to driving forward our national policy efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Gottemoeller said. “The notion that somehow everything else we’re doing already is not served by our policy with regard to the [nuclear trade] agreements does not sit well.”
Key Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have urged the Obama administration to vigorously pursue no-enrichment-and-reprocessing provisions in several anticipated new trade deals and upcoming renewal accords (see GSN, March 9).
Senior officials with the State and Energy departments announced in January they would instead take a “case-by-case” approach to negotiations. They argued in a letter to lawmakers that more active pursuit of the so-called gold standard could alienate U.S. trade partners and result in lost nuclear industry jobs (see GSN, Jan. 23).
Behind the scenes, the issue has been debated at very senior levels, with State’s former and present deputy secretaries arguing support of the gold standard is an important facet of a signature Obama issue -- nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament -- while Energy’s deputy has given more voice to economic and industry concerns, according to government sources.
The administration in summer 2010 told lawmakers it was discussing draft nuclear trade agreements with Jordan and Vietnam that would not include a no-materials-processing pledge akin to the UAE provision. Lawmaker outcry prompted the first of three interdepartmental reviews intended to determine a single policy that would guide future negotiations.
Talks with those two nations reportedly have been progressing but have not yet led to signed agreements (see GSN, Jan. 12).
The Obama team has also explored the possibility of negotiating nuclear trade with Saudi Arabia, despite repeated remarks by top officials there indicating an interest in pursuing an atomic weapons capability to counter Israel and Iran (see GSN, July 28, 2011).
State Department officials were expected to meet with their Jordanian and Saudi counterparts last month regarding prospective nuclear deals, Global Security Newswire has learned, but no new developments have since been announced.
Following renewed Capitol Hill heartburn this past spring after the case-by-case tack was unveiled, the administration launched its latest internal review of the matter. The issue is reportedly now at the White House for decision, though it appears unlikely to be resolved prior to the November presidential election.
“We’re bearing in mind this question very carefully,” Gottemoeller said in a keynote address to the conference, sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command. “We are continuing to review the matter internally, and I don’t have anything further for you on that today.”
One issue expert said the internal administration debate could result in a policy that presumptively favors high nonproliferation standards.
“Currently, there is an interagency understanding that the State Department will aim to negotiate” no-enrichment-and-reprocessing provisions “into nearly all” forthcoming atomic trade pacts and “that any exceptions to the no-ENR outcome must be jointly authorized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu,” Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a Tuesday issue brief. The term “ENR” is short for enrichment and reprocessing.
Gottemoeller, who led the delegation that negotiated the 2011 New START nuclear arms control agreement with Russia, said that no matter how the latest review turns out, no one should mistake U.S. policy as pursuing anything less than the highest nonproliferation expectations for its trade interlocutors.
“Everything we do is to a very high standard,” she said. “There’s not a single item that is the gold standard; everything we do is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We’re paying attention to it every single day.”
So why wouldn’t a senior State figure like the term, given the department’s traditional commitment to global nonproliferation?
“Using the phrase ‘gold standard’ locks them into a more rigorous approach than they are currently prepared to use,” said Jodi Lieberman, a senior government relations specialist at the American Physical Society. “Despite this, the phrase is quite accurate, given the nonproliferation value of locking a country into forgoing [enrichment and reprocessing] technologies.”
Still, the risks of global nuclear proliferation -- potentially resulting in a higher risk that such arms will be used -- “wakes me up in the middle of many nights,” Gottemoeller said.
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