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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Unexpected Nonproliferation Partner

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Last week was a bad one for nuclear nonproliferation. North Korea announced that it had acquired nuclear weapons and had no intention of returning to the six-party multilateral negotiations where the United States and regional neighbors China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have been working to convince North Korea to end its nuclear program.

Then, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proudly congratulated Iran's scientists for achieving tremendous success -- including in the nuclear sphere -- despite decades of sanctions. The Tehran regime denies any interest in acquiring weapons, but the scale of its nuclear activities and its efforts to hide them from the international community speak otherwise.

The key question for the international community is what to do now. Some in the United States hint at the need for immediate military action against Iran. Others call for taking one country or both to the UN Security Council. Both options should be considered, but without careful planning and preparation, they pose more danger than benefit. If the United States insists on taking Iran or North Korea to the Security Council but does not have the votes to sanction them, then nothing is accomplished. Worse, if the United States tries to attack Iran but does not have clear targets and the intelligence to back them up, then it could end up in a more serious morass than it currently faces in Iraq.

Diplomacy is another option. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union, through the EU-3 -- France, Germany and Britain -- have been engaged with Iran at the same time that the six parties have engaged with North Korea. These talks are a place where progress can be made, but they are in danger of being lost in the wilderness. Iran and North Korea, so unlike in other ways, seem united in their determination to get nuclear weapons.

Clearly something new must be tried, and perhaps it's time to seek out partners who could bring new tools and perspectives to the problem. The United States and Russia have enormous experience with nuclear technologies. Since the end of the Cold War, they have worked together under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program (often known as "Nunn-Lugar" after the two senators who launched the program in 1992). This program has eliminated Soviet-era weapon systems and kept nuclear materials and warheads from falling into the wrong hands. Given this experience, the United States and Russia could be powerful partners in the fight against nuclear proliferation.

There are problems to confront, however. The United States and Russia are so experienced because they are nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- two of only five countries in the world that currently deploy nuclear weapons under international law. According to the NPT, the United States and Russia should be moving to eliminate their nuclear weapons, and their perceived reluctance to do so makes them suspect to non-nuclear states around the world.

Another problem is mutual suspicion. In the 1990s, the potential for nonproliferation cooperation between Washington and Moscow was colored by U.S. concerns about Russian policy. The United States was especially concerned that Russia was abetting an Iranian nuclear weapons program by selling the Iranians key technologies -- centrifuges, laser isotope enrichment equipment and a heavy water reactor. This concern was exacerbated when Russian experts and policymakers insisted that Iran was not capable of making use of such technologies as part of a weapons program.

Russia seemed to be a proliferation problem rather than part of the solution. As a result, the model for U.S. cooperation with Russia on nonproliferation matters was quite limited. It was mostly an assistance relationship under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, not a partnership.

These problems can be dealt with, however. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is under review this year at a major UN conference in May. Washington and Moscow can make the case that they are destroying nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and shutting down the facilities where they are made. Some of these activities flow from treaties -- the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, for example -- but others are being undertaken unilaterally. If the two capitals were willing to brief the international community, individually or together, about what they are doing to cut back their nuclear arsenals, then the suspicion of other countries would lessen.

As for U.S. concern about Russia's behavior, that situation has begun to change. In 2003, an Iranian opposition group broke the story of a large clandestine effort within Iran to build nuclear fuel cycle facilities. This information, accompanied by overhead photographs, raised considerable alarm in the international community about Iran's intentions. Russia, which had been building a light-water reactor at the Bushehr site for nearly a decade, was also concerned. As the evidence unfolded, it became clear that Iran had secretly acquired centrifuges and other equipment through the Abdul Qadeer Khan network operating out of Pakistan. Russia, although it had tried to sell such technologies earlier, was not implicated in this deal.

In fact, to the contrary, Russia began to use the leverage that it had available thanks to the Bushehr reactor project to assist the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union in their negotiations. Russia pressed Iran to implement the additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement.

Russia also insisted that it would not provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor until the Iranians had agreed to a complete fuel services deal: Russia would provide fresh fuel for the reactor and take back the spent fuel. Iran would not need to enrich uranium for fuel for Bushehr, nor reprocess the spent fuel, activities that would provide it with the materials to build nuclear weapons. Thus, in Iran, Russia began to act like part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In this way, the United States and Russia may be able to work together on tough proliferation cases. In fact, Moscow has some unique contributions it could bring to such a partnership. For example, Russian experts know the North Korean scientific community well. Many North Korean scientists were educated at Soviet universities and were reportedly stellar students in physics, chemistry and the other scientific fields in which they trained. At a time when it is difficult to engage with the Pyongyang government, Russia's links with North Korea's scientists might enable a dialogue to develop on reducing nuclear threats and advancing technological cooperation.

In Iran, Russia's long-running diplomacy might enable progress toward goals that the United States could never achieve on its own, given the 25-year hiatus in direct contacts between Tehran and Washington. Russian nuclear specialists have often mentioned, for example, that special transparency arrangements could be developed for the fuel services deal at the Bushehr reactor. Remote monitoring systems could be combined with on-site inspections and precise regulation of deliveries to ensure that fuel could not be diverted from the reactor site for processing into plutonium and use in nuclear weapons.

As President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin get ready to meet at Bratislava next week, they should think hard about how to launch an effective nonproliferation partnership, and quickly. For too long, cooperation on nuclear problems has been limited to the United States assisting Russia to get rid of its Cold War nuclear baggage. But Russia has much to offer in resolving the nuclear crises that are dogging the world today. The United States should be ready to embrace it.

Rose Gottemoeller is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. In 1999-2000, she was deputy undersecretary of energy for defense nuclear nonproliferation. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.