By Carol Pederson, Wall Street Journal
Sorting the real, from the phony, nuclear proliferation threats.
As far as grand summitry goes, an American President hasn’t hosted something like the current two-day talk-in on nuclear security in Washington since—well, as the Obama Administration described it, not since the San Francisco Conference of 1945. That meeting created the United Nations and helped establish the postwar world order. The agenda for the party that started yesterday is far more modest, but also hard to dislike.
President Obama invited the leaders of 46 countries to brainstorm ways to secure weapons-grade plutonium and uranium and ensure that terrorist groups don’t get their hands on a bomb. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. tracked and locked down nuclear material in the former Soviet Union with admirable success through the Nunn-Lugar program. In our current post-9/11 era, al Qaeda and like-minded Islamists badly want a bomb, and this Washington gabfest can usefully focus minds and highlight best practices for governments willing to stop global proliferation.
Any achievements will be modest. Ukraine yesterday agreed to eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, nearly 16 years after giving up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. Kiev isn’t a proliferator of nuclear weapons, and while welcome, this deal won’t make anyone in the free world sleep better at night.
In his remarks on Sunday, President Obama declared that: “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come.”
That’s true enough, which only underscores what isn’t on the table this week. Namely, proliferation by Iran and North Korea. U.S. officials say they avoided these touchy subjects to ensure that all countries came on board. China might be annoyed by raising such state-sponsored proliferation, goes the argument, and in any case that’s being pursued at the U.N.
Really? Nuclear material in the hands of well-run democracies that play by international rules isn’t likely to fall into the hands of terrorists. However, were Iran to develop an atomic bomb and the means to deliver a warhead, the danger automatically rises that the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism might share it with its friends in Hezbollah or Hamas. Or imagine a North Korea hard up for cash and willing to sell a device to al Qaeda.
The restrictions on sensitive topics evidently doesn’t apply to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled plans to attend after Turkey and Egypt declared their intention to turn the spotlight on Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. Who wants to travel across the ocean to listen to insults?
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared the Jewish state “the principal threat to peace in the region today.” But Israel’s nukes aren’t prompting him or the Saudis or Egyptians to kick-start their atomic programs; an Israeli bomb poses no threat to them. An Iranian bomb would.
In our view, “the single biggest threat to American security” would be to allow Iran to defy years of effort by the world’s leading nations and become a nuclear power. That would unleash a new age of proliferation that would swamp this week’s attempts at controlling nuclear materials. Prevent an Iranian breakout, and the risk of an al Qaeda nuclear attack falls sharply. High-profile nuclear summitry has its uses, but it won’t mean much if Mr. Obama dodges the hard decisions necessary to stop the world’s most dangerous proliferators.