Obama’s Nuclear Policy Gamble

Presidents Obama and Medvedev (Russia) speak at the G-20 Summit last September

This week the Obama administration announced a new nuclear strike policy: the US will not retaliate with nuclear weapons against any state that attacks it with conventional, chemical, or even biological weapons. Rogue states such as Iran and North Korea are the exception to the rule.

While both conservatives and liberals seem unhappy with the new policy (conservatives say the policy makes America less safe, liberals say the policy does not go far enough by eliminating all nuclear weapons), the policy itself was probably formulated not to appeal to domestic constituencies but to help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The Obama administration is trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. President Obama supports a peaceful nuclear energy program for Iran so long as Iran agrees to certain requirements regarding uranium enrichment. However, Iran’s resistance to UN inspections and the recent revelation of a secret uranium enrichment facility near Qum lead Western and Arab Gulf states to believe that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons.

Obama’s current strategy to resolving the nuclear crisis is to persuade Iran through international sanctions to come clean about its nuclear program and to fulfill its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory. So long as Iran yields to these requirements then it will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration’s startling nuclear policy announcement appears to be aimed at winning international support for the new round of UN sanctions. Part of the criticism of the US-led effort to sanction Iran again is what Arab leaders believe to be the hypocrisy of nuclear powers and the US in particular.

Arab leaders argue that the US and other nuclear powers are using the NPT as a way to prevent other states from getting nuclear weapons while they themselves hold on to their own nuclear weapons. Put simply, critics charge that the NPT is a vehicle to keep the status quo, which favors those who already possess the weapons.

From an ethical angle, NPT critics see hypocrisy. It is like a thief who tells others not to steal. Critics point to the fact that the US is going after Iran for its alleged pursuit of the bomb when at the same time the US supports Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Arab leaders wonder how the Middle East can be “nuclear free” while Israel, which is a part of the Middle East, has nuclear weapons.

To be sure, Sunni Arab leaders do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons but their criticism still raises eyebrows. By going along with another round of sanctions on Iran, Arab leaders are probably feeling the political heat from their own constituencies who believe that the West treats them as second class citizens vis-à-vis Israel and other Western interests.

Obama knows that he cannot just abolish all US nuclear weapons. Such a policy would endanger America’s national security so long as other states have them. So how can Obama win Middle East support in his effort to keep isolating Iran? He is offering a concession to Arab leaders and others who feel as they do.

The US will reduce its nuclear arsenal further in its new nuclear arms treaty with Russia and promise to not use the nuclear weapons that it has even if it is attacked by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons!

Put another way, Obama is saying to those in the Middle East: “We don’t want Iran to get nuclear weapons. While we ourselves are not willing to get rid of ours we will promise to limit their future use. Now will you join us in stopping Iran?”

Obama’s new nuclear policy is a gamble. Winning Middle East support for keeping the pressure on Iran might be better achieved if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis could be resolved. Moreover, if future US presidents wish to reduce the US nuclear arsenal further, they will need to include the other nuclear powers in new treaties.