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White House Aide: Kyl Agreed to Nuclear Funds Before Tripping Up Arms Treaty
WASHINGTON -- A senior White House official yesterday said "basic agreement" had been reached with Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) on future funding levels for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex before the lawmaker moved to dampen hopes of ratifying a new arms control treaty before the end of the year (see GSN, Nov. 18).
In informal talks with Vice President Joseph Biden and others in the executive branch, the Senate's No. 2 Republican actually concurred with White House plans to spend $85 billion over the next decade to modernize nuclear research and production facilities and maintain an aging stockpile, according to Gary Samore, the National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation.
White House officials last Friday flew to Arizona, Kyl's home state, to formally brief the senator on its new budget package, which includes a $4.1 billion increase over earlier funding outlines for the next five years. Fiscal 2012 support for the Energy Department's nuclear weapons efforts would total $7.6 billion, the administration announced Wednesday.
The executive branch was seeking to earn Kyl's endorsement of the New START agreement -- signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April -- in exchange for resolving his concerns about the adequacy of funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile, a priority that top officials insist they share.
The White House has viewed the influential senator as a linchpin to securing the nine Republican "yes" votes required this year for ratification of the nuclear arms control accord, which would demand the support of at least 67 senators.
If the Senate fails to ratify the treaty during the current lame-duck session, it is less certain whether advocates could rally the required votes in the 112th Congress, in which Republicans have picked up a net six new Senate seats.
The administration this week has defied the Senate Republican whip, signaling in a high-stakes gambit that it would continue to press for floor debate and a vote on the treaty early next month, with or without Kyl's support.
"It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New Start treaty this year," President Obama said yesterday at a White House strategy meeting on the matter. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress."
A number of Republicans have joined Kyl in calling for additional time to ensure their concerns are fully resolved regarding modernization programs for nuclear warheads and delivery platforms, missile defenses and other related matters.
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who supported the treaty in committee in September, is among those who have chided the administration for waiting until last Friday to present its updated modernization plan and then asking lawmakers to rush into a floor vote.
Samore offered a very different perspective, though, saying the administration had not only discussed the budget figures for several weeks with Kyl but had also reached what appeared to be an understanding on the matter.
"My impression is that basic agreement was reached on a plus-up program, which of course the administration has now publicly announced: $85 billion over 10 years," Samore said at a round-table discussion with journalists and policy analysts. "So I don't think that's the issue."
After "long dialogue" with the senator, it has become clear that Obama and Kyl "share the same interest in making sure the labs have the necessary funding," the White House official added. "And I think we've reached basic agreement on what that funding level should be."
A spokesman for Kyl did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Under New START, the United States and Russia agree to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level of 1,550. Under a prior treaty, the two nations had previously moved to cap warheads at 2,200 by the end of 2012. The new accord also would limit strategic delivery vehicles to 700, with an additional 100 allowed in reserve.
Samore laid out four primary reasons for why the White House wants to devote "precious floor time" to consideration of the replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty during the closing weeks of 2010.
First, he said, the accord "has become an important symbol of U.S. leadership." Foreign governments, including U.S. allies, see New START as a "no-brainer" because it revitalizes arms control efforts, preserves a strong nuclear deterrent, includes an effective verification regime, and does not jeopardize Washington's plans for missile defense or conventionally armed long-range missiles, Samore said at the event, sponsored by the Nixon Center.
"Especially at a time when U.S. leadership is being questioned, there is a real question of whether or not this country can rise above its partisan, political infighting and do something that's in the national interest," said Samore, noting that strong bipartisan majorities had approved prior arms control treaties. A failure to act "will damage the U.S. reputation as a country that's willing to lead," he said.
Second, a ratification disappointment would "damage the U.S.-Russian relationship and the relatively good cooperation we've had from the Russians on issues such as Iran, Afghanistan, [and] efforts to secure loose nuclear materials," he said.
In particular, "Medvedev has invested a tremendous amount of his own energy and prestige to get this treaty done," Samore said. Despite "resistance within his system," the Russian leader "has really delivered in terms of working with us on some of our top national security issues, whether it's sanctions against Iran or stopping the transfers of S-300 [air defense] missiles to Iran," or support in the transit of supplies for Afghanistan, he said.
"I believe that he will be wounded and the overall U.S.-Russian relationship will be wounded if the treaty is not ratified," Samore said.
He underscored the importance of Washington's partnership with Moscow in the effort to ensure that Tehran does not acquire the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Russian cooperation on isolating Iran significantly improved after Iran's secret uranium enrichment facility at Qum was discovered, Samore said (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009).
An inability to move forward on New START "weakens the coalition" in handling the Iran matter and "makes our job much more difficult, especially with respect to maintaining our coordination with Russia," he said, noting that talks with Tehran, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, could begin next month (see GSN, Nov. 18).
A third consideration is that, absent treaty ratification, "the very fragile political consensus we have to increase funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories may evaporate," he said. The incoming Congress would likely be under strong pressure to cut budgets, he said, and all bets are off if a bipartisan deal cannot be reached about the importance of the nuclear complex funding.
Fourth, Samore said, lack of movement to implement New START's nuclear-warhead inspection and data-sharing provisions would deny the U.S. government useful intelligence about Russian atomic forces. Inadequate information exchanges or misunderstandings between the two nuclear powers could also increase the risk of instability in a crisis, potentially triggering a dangerous conflict, he said.
The NSC official also endorsed a fifth justification proposed by event moderator Richard Burt, a 1991 START agreement chief negotiator, namely that prompt ratification could help advance the rest of Obama's global nonproliferation agenda.
Under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Russia and the United States -- along with three other smaller nuclear powers -- agreed to make progress toward eventually eliminating their stockpiles in exchange for a commitment by non-nuclear countries not to ever build or acquire atomic arms.
A failure to implement New START could give Tehran or other nations whose compliance with global nonproliferation regimes has been questioned a "talking point" that the two Cold War superpowers are failing to hold up their part of the bargain, some discussion participants noted.
Still, Samore acknowledged the potential challenge in achieving the next steps that Obama has laid out in his vision for arms control and nonproliferation, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiation of a U.S.-Russian follow-on to New START that limits tactical nuclear weapon deployments, and international talks to achieve a fissile material control treaty.
"I think it's very important to recognize that all of those are going to be very difficult," even if New START is ratified, he said. "In the case of the FMCT, Pakistan is blocking negotiations within the Conference on Disarmament," Samore noted, adding, "As difficult as New START is, the CTBT is going to be a very, very difficult lift in the Senate, especially when the new Senate takes office in January."
As for a new round of nuclear-weapon reductions with Russia, "I don't think that's going to happen very quickly," said Samore. Thorny matters such as tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense would take longer to sort out than the one year of negotiations on New START required, he said.
"I would not expect another round of cuts between the U.S. and Russia for some period of years," Samore said.
Given the gloomy prospects for formal agreements, "it may be that we don't think a set-piece, Cold War-type treaty is actually the right way to proceed," he said. "We may want to look at some alternative ways of trying to deal with each side's nuclear forces, in terms of increasing stability and transparency."
Samore also addressed a number of related nonproliferation issues in his remarks:
-- Talks with Iran: The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany have been reluctant to accept Iran's proposal for Istanbul to be the venue for the first meeting with Ashton because Turkey voted against penalties for Iran's nuclear program in June, he said (see GSN, June 9).
The Iranian neighbor was not viewed as "an appropriate place" to launch the talks because "Turkey is not neutral in this issue, having voted against the sanctions," Samore said. A more neutral site such as Geneva, Switzerland, or Vienna, Austria, is likely to win the backing of both sides, he said (see GSN, Nov. 15).
-- Tehran's nuclear capability: Samore said that technical problems that Iran has encountered with its enrichment process should effectively buy the international community more time to pursue the diplomatic effort to block the Middle Eastern state's development of a nuclear weapon, a capability that Tehran insists it does not seek.
"They are not on the verge of having a credible capability to produce large amounts of weapons-grade uranium," he said. "So I think we've got time to play this out -- months, if not maybe even a year or two."
-- Nonproliferation and civil nuclear cooperation: The question of whether to apply a so-called "gold standard" of nonproliferation provisions to upcoming civil nuclear cooperation agreements, such as Washington's pending bilateral pacts with Vietnam and Jordan, is before Obama to decide, Samore confirmed (see GSN, Nov. 3).
The standard was developed in a 2009 agreement in which the United Arab Emirates agreed not to engage in uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, activities that can be used for generating civil nuclear power but also could potentially contribute to building atomic bombs.
Some U.S. lawmakers were infuriated to learn earlier this year that the Obama administration had not demanded that the Vietnam and Jordan accords include similar nonproliferation measures. The White House agreed to study the matter but has said little since then.
Samore would not describe debate within the administration, but did say the toughest nonproliferation provisions would appear in some, but perhaps not all, of Washington's civil technology cooperation agreements around the world, which are governed by Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act.
"We will apply the gold standard," he said. "The only question is whether you try to do that across the board, on a universal basis -- and we know that that's going to run into some very serious difficulties in the case of some '123' agreements -- or whether we're going to be more selective about it.
"So it's not as though we're giving up on the gold standard," he added. "The only question is how do you apply it, how broadly do you seek to apply it."
-- International guidelines for sensitive trade: The United States will continue to press the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to adopt by next month a common set of standards for trade in sensitive nuclear technologies and materials, after six years of deadlock, he said (see GSN, July 2).
Most recently, Turkey has blocked unanimous agreement on such guidelines, and South Africa has registered objections, as well. If the impasse continues, Washington will propose that NSG countries separately adopt the guidelines on a national basis, said Samore, without singling out Ankara or Pretoria by name.
"I think you'd get 46 out of 47 countries adopting the new guidelines," Samore said. The European Commission participates in NSG meetings as a permanent observer.
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