U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday called for strengthening the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect suspected nuclear-related facilities and ruled out lifting sanctions against North Korea until it took "verifiable and irreversible" steps toward denuclearization.
In what was billed as a major policy address, Clinton also called for Iran to take "prompt action" in implementing a proposed plan to ship most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for reprocessing so that it can be used to produce medical isotopes at a reactor in Tehran.
Iranian diplomats reportedly gave tentative approval to the plan in talks with the U.S. and other major powers in Vienna Wednesday.
"Thwarting the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran is critical to the shoring up of the [nuclear] non-proliferation regime," she declared.
She also reiterated President Barack Obama’s intention to submit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for ratification by the U.S. Senate and to conclude a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia that will slash the nuclear stockpiles of both countries when the existing agreement expires in December. Together the two countries possess 96 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
"We are under no illusions that this START agreement will persuade Iran and North Korea to end their illicit nuclear activities," she told the U.S. Institute for Peace, a government-supported think tank. "But it will demonstrate that the United States is living up to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to work toward nuclear disarmament."
"In doing so, it will help convince the rest of the international community to strengthen non-proliferation controls and tighten the screws on states that flout their non-proliferation commitments," she added.
Since last April, when Obama unveiled his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world in a major address in Prague, his administration has made clear it considers non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament to be one of its highest foreign policy priorities.
To underline its importance, Obama himself chaired a U.N. Security Council meeting – becoming the first U.S. president to do so – devoted exclusively to non-proliferation and disarmament Sep. 24.
He also announced that he will host a global summit on nuclear security in Washington next April, one month before diplomats from around the world are set to gather in Vienna for talks to review the NPT, including ways that it could be strengthened.
While Clinton added little to what the administration has already said about these issues, she made clear that strengthening the existing non-proliferation regime – especially the powers of the IAEA — was at the top of the U.S. agenda.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t have the tools or authority to carry out its mission effectively," she said. "We saw this in the institution’s failure to detect Iran’s covert enrichment plant and Syria’s reactor project."
The IAEA’s additional protocol, an optional provision for NPT signatories that permits the agency to carry out aggressive, short-notice inspections at nuclear sites that it monitors, "should be made universal through concerted efforts to persuade key holdout states to join," she said.
In addition to making "full use of existing verification authorities, including special inspections," the IAEA "should also be given new authorities, including the ability to investigate suspected nuclear-weapons-related activities, even when no nuclear materials are present," she added.
Moreover, NPT members should also consider adopting "automatic penalties for violations of safeguards agreements – for example, suspending all international cooperation or IAEA technical cooperation projects until compliance has been restored," she went on, noting that, "the international community’s record of enforcing compliance in recent years is unacceptable."
On North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and tested a nuclear device in 2006 and again last May, Clinton said "current sanctions will not be relaxed until Pyongyang takes verifiable, irreversible steps toward complete denuclearization" pursuant to its 2005 pledge to do so in exchange for a number of economic and political incentives.
The pledge was made in the context of the so-called "six-party talks" that also included the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. She added that Washington remained willing to meet on a bilateral basis with Pyongyang within the six-party framework. "But North Korea’s return to the negotiating table is not enough," she stressed.
"Its leaders should be under no illusion that the United States will ever have normal, sanctions-free relations with a nuclear-armed North Korea," she added.
On Iran, which has not renounced the NPT, she also stressed that Washington "will continue to engage both multilaterally and bilaterally to discuss the full range of issues that have divided Iran and the United States for too long."
But, she stressed, "The process of engagement cannot be open-ended." In that context, she called for "prompt action" in implementing the accord that was the subject of negotiations between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 countries – the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany – at the IAEA in Vienna this week. Iran’s representatives reportedly said Tehran would make a final decision on the plan by Friday.
Most analysts here believe that, by sending most of Iran’s LEU stockpile out of the country and reprocessing it in a form that would be very difficult to convert to weapons use, the plan could buy more time for negotiating an agreement that would permit Tehran to maintain its enrichment program under the NPT subject to strict verification and inspection provisions of the kind that Clinton suggested should be made universal.
Apart from strengthening the non-proliferation regime, however, she also stressed that the existing nuclear-weapons states should also take steps to reassure non-nuclear states both that they are committed to eventual disarmament.
"We can’t afford to continue relying on recycled Cold War thinking. We are sincere in our pursuit of a secure, peaceful world without nuclear weapons," she said.
Clinton added, however, that "until we reach that point of the horizon where the last nuclear weapon has been eliminated, we need to reinforce the domestic consensus that America will maintain the nuclear infrastructure needed to sustain a safe and effective deterrent without nuclear testing."
To secure Senate ratification of the CTBT, which was narrowly rejected in 1999 after President Bill Clinton submitted it, the administration will have to persuade at least seven Republicans to back it. Many analysts believe that will be possible only if the administration agrees to develop new warheads to replace its current arsenal.
(Inter Press Service)