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Former Defense Brass Object to ‘More Restrictive’ Nuclear Trade Policies

Steam is emitted from the cooling tower at the nuclear power plant in Tihange, Southeast of Brussels.

Steam is emitted from the cooling tower at the nuclear power plant in Tihange, Southeast of Brussels. // Yves Logghe/AP File Photo

A half-dozen former U.S. national security leaders last month implored President Obama to avoid tightening restrictions on foreign nuclear cooperation in the interest of nonproliferation.

“The U.S. civil nuclear industry is one of [Washington’s] most powerful tools for advancing its nuclear nonproliferation agenda,” according to an April 25 letter obtained this week by Global Security Newswire.

“It is critical to adopt policies that will strengthen that tool,” the missive reads. “Weakening it will merely cede foreign markets to other suppliers less concerned about nonproliferation than the United States.”

The appeal to Obama reportedly was circulated for signature by the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, John Hamre, according to sources familiar with the initiative. It appears on CSIS letterhead.

In addition to the one-time deputy Defense secretary, signatories include former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and James Jones, former Defense secretaries James Schlesinger and William Cohen, and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, previously chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The letter cautions “against the adoption of policies that could inadvertently weaken the ability of the United States to continue to provide international leadership on this critically important issue,” though it stops short of naming specific policies the authors find objectionable.

A CSIS spokesman, H. Andrew Schwartz, on Wednesday said Hamre was on travel and could not respond to questions about the letter.

Issue experts, though, said the eight writers appear to be concerned about an ongoing Obama administration internal policy review regarding its approach to negotiating atomic trade pacts with other nations.

Lawmakers repeatedly have called on the federal branch to strengthen its pursuit of the so-called nonproliferation “gold standard,” in which a trade partner receives access to sensitive U.S. nuclear materials or technologies only in exchange for a promise not to produce atomic fuel on its own soil.

Enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium can be used in civil nuclear power generation, but these activities also could open the door to a clandestine atomic weapons effort, as is widely suspected in Iran and elsewhere.

“It’s clearly what the letter is about,” said one congressional source who asked not to be named, lacking authorization to address the matter publicly. “But since they can’t bring themselves to say that, some lawmakers will wonder what they are talking about. Why are they so reluctant to be explicit about what new restrictions concern them?”

Some senior administration officials have said the gold standard should be pursued on a case-by-case basis, and for a brief period last year that appeared to be U.S. policy. A number of key members of Congress and nonproliferation advocates, though, have urged the Obama White House to advocate this type of pledge abroad more widely and vigorously.

The letter to Obama notes that the U.S. market share for nuclear exports has dropped precipitously over roughly the past two decades, leading to “substantially diminished U.S. influence in such areas as nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear safety.”

The former defense leaders argue that managing proliferation risk should continue to be customized for each trade partner rather than expanded more broadly.

“In order to restore its nonproliferation influence around the globe, the United States government must find ways to strengthen the competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry, and avoid policies that threaten to further weaken it,” the letter reads. “We therefore urge that, as part of your export control reform initiative, streamlining of the process for licensing civil nuclear exports be made a top priority.”

Some critics are already questioning, though, why the former national security leaders have set their sights on nonproliferation measures as a chief hindrance to U.S. nuclear sales overseas, when competitors such as France, Russia and South Korea enjoy financial advantages that substantially reduce their prices.

“The problem is not nonproliferation but foreign subsidies of [the] U.S. [industry’s] competitors,” said the congressional source. “That’s the real problem that needs to be solved.”

One gold-standard advocate, Henry Sokolski, questioned the letter’s contention that U.S. nuclear sales to foreign nations must be a principal vehicle for Washington in stanching proliferation.

“You'd think after our wretched experience with civil nuclear programs in Iran, India, Iraq, Pakistan and our past near-calls with Taiwan and South Korea's programs, this would be the last thing anyone truly opposed to nuclear weapons proliferation would push,” said Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sharon Squassoni, who directs the Proliferation Prevention Program at Hamre’s organization, has long encouraged stronger export control measures to help curb proliferation. Neither Schwartz, the CSIS spokesman, nor Squassoni responded to queries about whether the organization’s nuclear trade and nonproliferation experts were consulted when the text of the letter was drafted.

Squassoni did say, though, that she differs with the view that taking a case-by-case approach to demanding a no-fuelmaking promise from U.S. nuclear trade interlocutors would help streamline the export process. She contended that the opposite is true.

“The current hold-up on the U.S. side in moving forward with nuclear cooperation agreements is apparently due to a policy disagreement on whether or not to take a principled -- [or] nondiscriminatory -- approach or a case-by-case approach,” she told GSN in a written response to questions. “It is always cleaner to take a principled approach.”

By contrast, “taking a case-by-case approach encourages states to argue for the least stringent requirements based on political-military issues,” said Squassoni, who also serves as a CSIS senior fellow. “This occurs because so many governments treat these nuclear cooperation agreements as prestigious prizes, rather than the implementing frameworks they really are.”

The CSIS spokesman was asked if the former defense leaders’ letter to Obama might have a chilling effect on CSIS staff members whose views on nuclear trade and nonproliferation differ.

“[Hamre] signed the note in his private capacity as a former U.S. senior official. There is no connection to CSIS with regard to this matter,” said Schwartz, who serves as the organization’s senior vice president for external relations. “Dr. Hamre had it on his personal CSIS stationary, not official stationary, which has a masthead with all of CSIS’ trustees on it.”

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