Time to Seize the High Ground on Nuclear Weapons

In his recent speech at Hiroshima, President Obama said the use of atomic weapons should serve as a “moral awakening” to pursue his vision for a nuclear-free world. Unfortunately, he severely understated both his own efforts to achieve this, and the most pressing threat that these weapons will spread. Obama should emphasize how the United States is actively and earnestly undertaking unprecedented steps toward nuclear disarmament. He should then leverage this against Iran’s efforts to make a mockery of his vision.

His case rests soundly on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States, as one of the treaty’s five nuclear-weapons parties, pledges to reduce its nuclear arsenal and ultimately eliminate it. In exchange, non-nuclear-weapons parties like Iran forego nuclear weapons and agree to safeguards ensuring their nuclear programs are peaceful.

The United States is doing its utmost to fulfill its end of the bargain. Indeed, the long history of U.S. leadership calling explicitly for nuclear disarmament – four presidents and at least as many former secretaries of state, among others – is becoming policy. Obama is continuing the process begun late in the Cold War of cutting U.S. strategic warheads deployed in bombers, submarines and silos. This figure fell by two-thirds between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Prague speech. Since then, his Administration has halved the remaining amount, and reduced the number of nuclear weapons stored in reserve by 40 percent.

Numbers tell only part of the story. The United States declared unilaterally it will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT members, and that it will not develop new warheads or new missions for nuclear weapons. It also retired its nuclear cruise missiles, and is dismantling bombs with yields over a megaton. Furthermore, the Obama Administration will begin declassifying details about the nuclear stockpile to make these reductions more transparent.

In direct contrast, Iran is actively flouting its end of the bargain. Its enrichment facilities were built and initially operated covertly, and thus illegally under the NPT. These facilities, and their uranium stockpiles, far exceed any logical or economical basis for Tehran’s justification that they will generate electricity and support medical research.

Additionally, Iran is making its nuclear program less transparent. It has never come clean on its research into building a nuclear weapon. It retains the infrastructure to produce multiple bombs’ worth of fissile material annually – a right the NPT does not guarantee – all while inspections and reporting on Iran’s nuclear progress have been weakened since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) took effect in January.

Iran also is working assiduously on delivery vehicles for a nuclear weapon, with multiple rounds of provocative ballistic missile tests and brash avowals that this is only the beginning. In every aspect of its program, Iran has worked through illicit networks involving nuclear non-NPT states like Pakistan and North Korea.

Yet Iran has been the one consistently excoriating the United States for being untrustworthy. It’s time to set the record straight, to use the legal and moral high ground to hold Iran accountable for its incredibly destabilizing activities.

The Obama Administration, and the U.S. government more broadly, should draw these explicit contrasts between the two countries’ nuclear programs. Painting a black and white picture might finally put some backbone into the U.N. Security Council to push back against Iran’s increasing violations of its nonproliferation commitments. By lending credibility to the Obama Administration’s mantra that Iran will not be permitted nuclear weapons, it would also help reassure U.S. allies like Egypt, Japan, South Korea and U.A.E. not to abandon their existing nonproliferation agreements with the United States.

Obama should further reinforce the NPT by enhancing U.S. deterrence against serial violators like Iran. Specifically, he should sharpen U.S. declaratory policy by announcing the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons only against non-nuclear capable NPT members. The logic is straightforward, since any non-nuclear member actually capable of producing nuclear weapons – something the IAEA could not rule out when it closed Iran’s file on possible military dimensions last year – would by definition violate the treaty.

Despite the highly dubious merits of Obama’s policies, they nevertheless create serious momentum to turn the tables on Iran. The president can, and must, capitalize on U.S. nuclear cutbacks to highlight the dangers Iran poses to the continued viability of the global nonproliferation regime.

Jonathan Ruhe is Associate Director of JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

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