The Obama administration is leading a new push for negotiations on a global treaty halting production of nuclear bomb material, a move further aggravating tensions with Pakistan, which has blocked the start of talks.
The U.S. won support for the action from China and three other declared nuclear-weapons powers -- France, Russia and the U.K. -- during a meeting June 30-July 1 in Paris. The group is seeking agreement, by September’s start of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York, on a way of starting talks on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.
The treaty has been stalled in the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament for 12 years, where Pakistan has become the sole holdout against negotiations.
“Our preference is to negotiate an FMCT within the Conference on Disarmament, but that body has been deadlocked by Pakistan,” Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher told Commonwealth Club audience July 28 in Lafayette, California, near San Francisco. “Thus, the United States is joining with other key countries to start preparations for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty elsewhere until the conference can get down to work.”
The maneuver may allow President Barack Obama to make progress on one item of his nuclear arms control agenda while Russia and the U.S. political calendar hinder progress on others.
Pakistan’s acting representative to the UN, Raza Bashir Tarar, last week told a General Assembly meeting in New York on the impasse that he would “strike a note of caution against taking” the treaty talks outside the Conference on Disarmament.
“Pakistan will not join any such process nor would it consider accession to the outcome of any such process,” Tarar said. The 65-member Conference on Disarmament “cannot negotiate through cherry picking issues that some states consider to be ripe.”
Pakistan’s objections reflect its existential fear of nuclear archrival India, which has enough plutonium for about 140 bombs, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Pakistan has enough plutonium and uranium for 100 bombs, according to the ACA.
“The CD’s work or inactivity is a reflection of prevailing political realities,” Tarar said. “No treaty can be negotiated in the CD which is contrary to the security interests of any of its member state.”
Pakistan’s opposition to taking negotiations outside the Conference on Disarmament have become irrelevant because it has blocked the start of talks anyway, said Daryl Kimball, the Arms Control Association’s executive director.
“The sad thing is that both India and Pakistan have more than enough nuclear firepower to render the other country a total wasteland,” Kimball said. In similar cases in the past, countries that didn’t participate in a treaty’s negotiations or didn’t sign eventually joined, he said.
Ending production of fissile material might serve as another base for further reductions in nuclear weapons and reduce the risk of material falling into the hands of terror groups. The U.S., Russia, the U.K. and France have all declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons, and experts believe China also has halted production, Kimball said.
“We do not need more fissile material that could be used to make more bombs,” Tauscher said. “We know terrorist groups are seeking to get their hands on such material any way that they can.”
‘Big Chess Game’
Still, the U.S. and its partners in the new effort should try to involve India, Israel and Pakistan, countries with facilities to produce uranium or plutonium that aren’t covered by international safeguards, Kimball said. Nations with safeguarded facilities such as Japan, the Netherlands, Brazil and South Africa, also should be included, he said.
China and Pakistan previously had conditioned negotiations for a fissile material treaty on starting similar talks toward a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, Kimball said. The U.S. had objected to that kind of treaty.
“It was like a big chess game, and it’s been stalemated since 1998,” he said.
China in 2007 backed off its insistence on negotiating an outer-space treaty, and the United Nations General Assembly unsuccessfully tried to find a way forward at last year’s annual meeting.
Rose Gottemoeller, the top U.S. negotiator on arms-control treaties, told last week’s UN meeting that calls for another UN General Assembly special session “are a distraction at best.”
“Unless we have agreed objectives for such a session,” she said, “we should better direct our efforts where progress can be made.”