"Is Obama embracing an arms race in the Middle East?" asks FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate

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In an op-ed published last week, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and Congressman Ed Markey (D, Mass.) criticize President Obama for abandoning the effort to prevent a post-Iran nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Known as the new “gold standard” for nuclear nonproliferation, this effort is intended to complement—and bolster—U.S. and allied efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Under the nonproliferation “gold standard”—which was established by the U.S. civil nuclear trade deal with the United Arab Emirates—countries that lack nuclear arms would legally oblige themselves not to develop uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing, and other nuclear fuel-making technologies that can bring them to the brink of nuclear weapons. They’d also open themselves up to the sort of intrusive international inspections that Iran has adamantly refused to allow. The point of the new standard is to isolate Iran’s dangerous nuclear misbehavior and to forestall Middle Eastern countries themselves from pursuing nuclear arms. 

The problem, though, is that President Obama—the Nobel peace laureate who has pledged to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons—is preemptively giving up on nonproliferation “gold standard,” thereby fully opening the door for a race for nuclear arms in the Middle East. As Bolton and Markey write:

In 2009, in a burst of nonproliferation enthusiasm, the Obama administration insisted that a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates, signed by the Bush administration, be reopened to include a legally binding commitment by the U.A.E. not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium and to open its nuclear sites to intrusive international inspections. The State Department trumpeted this new set of conditions as the “gold standard” for future agreements.

But the Obama administration is now poised to send this “gold standard” to the trash heap.  On Jan. 11, senior Obama administration officials informed lawmakers that instead of requiring the highest nonproliferation standards from every future nuclear trade partner, they would impose no standard, undertaking instead a “case-by-case” approach . . .

The Obama administration’s apparent decision to bail on the nuclear “gold standard” comes at a critical time. Indeed, it’s clear that Iran’s march to nuclear weapons capability is threatening not only the security of the United States and Israel, but also that of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and other U.S. partners in the Middle East. What’s troubling, though, is that Iran’s nuclear mischief is leading countries in the region reportedly to consider their own options to get a nuclear bomb in a pinch. For example, some speculate that Saudi Arabia might ask Pakistan to place nuclear arms on its territory, just as Western Europeans had invited U.S. nuclear weapons on their territories to help deter the Soviet Union.

No doubt, a nuclear armed Iran would be terrible—and is unacceptable. But what would be arguably worse—especially for the United States, Israel, and other partners in the region—would be a grim future in which many Middle Eastern countries either possess nuclear arms or have the option on building them on very short notice. Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has described this sort of future as a “nuclear 1914” world, in which one country’s provocations would start a catalytic chain reaction a la World War I, potentially engulfing the region in nuclear conflict.

Bolton and Markey, however, contend that there’s much that can be done to stave off that “nuclear 1914” world. For starters, Congress can take the initiative:

Under the outdated legislation governing nuclear agreements, there is little that Congress can currently do to reject or modify even the most egregious deals made the White House. It is a strange approach indeed to national security to require Congressional approval for agreements involving cars, yarn, and peaches but not for those concerning nuclear matters.

There is an easy fix:  Bipartisan legislation by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and Howard Berman (D) of California makes reasonable modifications to current law to give Congress more power to reject nuclear cooperation agreements that don’t include the U.A.E.’s “gold standard” commitments.  If a country agrees to the gold standard, the existing expedited process for Congressional approval remains in place.  But if a country decides to retain the options of enrichment and reprocessing, the agreement must first be approved by Congress.

It is alarming that precisely when the global nonproliferation regime is breaking down, and as North Korea, Iran, and Syria set a model for other regimes dreaming of their own nuclear weapons, the Obama administration would further undermine the already weak, eroding restraints on the spread of these instruments of unparalleled terror and destruction. The money to be made from surrendering America and the world to the ambitions of nuclear-armed regimes will be long forgotten when the tragic consequences of these deals become a reality.

When John Bolton and Ed Markey—who rarely see eye-to-eye on anything—can find something they can agree on, it’s worth taking note. The Obama administration certainly should.

- Originally posted on The Weekly Standard Blog

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