Nuclear Issues between the US and Russia

Earlier today, President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met and then released a joint statement in which they pledged to work towards an agreement on three important nuclear issues.  The meeting was seen as an attempt to repair strained relations between the two countries.


One topic of discussion was the possibility of reducing the amount of nuclear warheads that each nation possesses.  The current arms treaty between the two powers allows them to have 2,200 a piece.  American and Russian officials privately indicated that that number could be reduced to 1,500 warheads under a new treaty. 


The controversy over Iran’s nuclear program was also addressed.  The joint statement encouraged Iran to stop enriching uranium and to allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear facilities, but it also acknowledged Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program as guaranteed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory.  The US believes that Iran intends to develop atomic weapons, but Russia does not publically share that view.  In the past Russia has sold nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic and has opposed economic sanctions that were applied by other members of the international community.


Missile defense was another subject that was discussed.  The US currently plans to build missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.  The Russians are strongly opposed to such a move because they claim that the system is directed against them, but Washington insists that it is only designed to destroy airborne missiles launched from Iran or other hostile states in the Middle East.   With regard to the planned deployment of missile interceptors, the statement noted that “differences remain.”   Some think that the Obama administration is willing to cancel the project if the Russians offer something significant in return.


On an editorial note, merely reducing the respective nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads seems rather timid.  Several hundred warheads would be a sufficient deterrent for both countries, especially if they are attached to missiles deployed on nuclear submarines that cannot be preemptively destroyed.  Any hostile nation would be virtually annihilated by a massive counterattack which both powers would still be able to launch.


At this point, it is uncertain how much Russian cooperation with other nations in isolating Iran would affect the latter’s ability to develop nuclear weapons if that is what the Iranian government intends to do, and it is also unclear if Russia would be willing to do so in a serious way.  However, such cooperation certainly could not hurt America’s diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from building atomic bombs.  Perhaps the US could offer to scrap the missile defense plan in exchange for Russian assistance with the Iranian issue.  Maintaining a reasonably large nuclear arsenal would almost certainly enable America to deter Iran from launching any nuclear attacks, so deploying missile interceptors to Eastern Europe would be unnecessary and offer little strategic advantage for the US.


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