Obama to push for nuclear treaty

President Obama will renew his push for a nuclear treaty at the United Nations in his second term, administration officials say.

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The president made banning the further production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium a priority in an April 2009 speech in Prague, but progress on a treaty stalled due to opposition from Pakistan.

Administration officials and arms control activists believe they now have a new window for action. They point to increased cooperation on the UN Security Council and the beginning of John Kerry’s tenure as secretary of State as reasons for optimism.

“John Kerry comes to the position with an immense depth of experience on nuclear, non-proliferation and disarmament issues and he has long supported the risk-reduction measures that the Obama administration has committed itself to,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“He is going to be a very active and creative force for advancing the president's nuclear risk reduction agenda, which remains unfinished.”

Kimball said progress on Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) would depend on cooperation from Pakistan, which harbors fears of archrival India having more access to fissile material. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council might hold side talks with India and Pakistan in April to try and move the treaty forward, he said.

Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department's top arms control official, was in Geneva this week to meet with the other 64 nations of the UN's Conference of Disarmament, which would negotiate the pact. A spokesman for her office said the treaty remains a “high priority” for Obama.

“The United States is consulting with China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, as well as others, to find a way to reach consensus and move forward on an FMCT,” Gottemoeller's spokesman said. “Commencing negotiations on an FMCT remains a high priority for this administration.”

A fissile material cut-off treaty has been under discussion since President Clinton broached the idea during a 1993 speech to the UN. Because the Conference on Disarmament works by consensus, formal negotiations have been thwarted by the objections of various members — including the United States, which objected to a verification mechanism during the George W. Bush administration.

Obama lifted that objection early in his first term and made the treaty a priority in his Prague speech. He is expected to speak out more about the treaty as the anniversary of that address approaches.

“To cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons,” Obama said in Prague. “If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them. That's the first step.”

While there’s been little movement on the treaty since 2009, international pressure on Pakistan has grown steadily.

“This logjam has been there for quite some time,” an administration official said. “And our patience is wearing thin.”

The Secretary-General of the Conference, UN chief Ban Ki-moon's personal representative to the talks, shared those concerns in an exclusive interview with The Hill at his office in Geneva last month.

“The situation of course is based on geopolitical considerations,” Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said. “And in this respect the United States should play — and plays, and tries to play — an important role in trying to break the deadlock."

He said closer ties between the United States and Pakistan “will give a green light to the negotiations here in Geneva. They are mutually linked.”

Kerry is seen as a potential facilitator in those talks because of his long-standing relationship with Pakistan. He boosted non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in 2011 was dispatched to the country to negotiate the release of CIA contractor Raymond Allen Davis after he shot and killed two Pakistanis.

“I extend our sincerest and best congratulations to Senator Kerry on his confirmation as Secretary of State. We all look forward to working with him and his team at a time of challenging transitions for the region,” Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, said in a statement after his confirmation.

“The Pak-US relationship has also recently taken an important turn for a more stable trajectory, and we hope to build on more positives together. We are now engaged in a full spectrum of bilateral dialogue groups at the strategic and working levels across many ministries.”

Kimball said that if Pakistan won't agree to let the treaty talks proceed, another option would be for other nuclear powers to jointly declare that they will collectively observe a moratorium on fissile material production. The United States, Russia, France and Great Britain have already acknowledged they've stopped producing fissile material, and China is believed to have ended it as well.

“Unless [administration officials] are willing to exert some major capital vis-a-vis Pakistan, or pursue a plan B approach, they're not likely to achieve success,” Kimball said. “Even with a capable secretary of State.”

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