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WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2010 (IPS) - When U.S. President Barack Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize last fall he said, “I’m working with [Russian] President [Dmitri] Medvedev to reduce America and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles.” Three and a half months later, that work has come to fruition.
In a telephone call Friday morning, Medvedev and Obama finalised a successor treaty to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that expired in December, following reports earlier this week that a deal was imminent.
The accord will continue the gradual reduction of the former Cold War powers’ nuclear stockpiles that has been mandated by a series of treaties since the early 1990s.
It is being hailed as one of Obama’s most significant foreign policy accomplishments thus far and, coming just days after his most significant domestic achievement – health care reform – caps a victorious week for the president.
But like health care, the road to a new 10-year arms reduction accord was longer than expected.
This road began nearly a year ago when Obama laid out his vision of a nuclear weapon-free world in a speech in Prague. It will come full circle on Apr. 8 when a signing ceremony for the new START will likewise be held in the Czech capital, a year and three days after Obama’s speech there.
Both the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma will need to ratify the accord, and in order to reach the two-thirds majority needed for ratification Obama will need the support of some Republicans.
Some in that party had criticised the treaty negotiations, citing their opposition to any concessions to Russia limiting the U.S.’s ability to implement missile defence programmes.
Multiple U.S. government officials said Friday the accord would set no constraints on missile defence. Russia had wanted missile defence included in a new treaty while the U.S. had wanted only offensive systems included, and the disagreement was a large reason the two sides were not able to agree on a new accord before the old START expired Dec. 5.
In its final version, the accord will recognise the dispute over missile defence, but not restrict the U.S.’s ability to build and expand such systems. Russia has reserved the right to pull out from the treaty if it feels threatened by U.S. missile defence systems, such as the planned missile defence shield in Europe.
Secretary of Defence Robert Gates explained, “The reductions in this treaty will not affect the strength of our nuclear triad. Nor does this treaty limit plans to protect the United States and our allies by improving and deploying missile defence systems.”
He said the “prospects are quite good” for Senate ratification.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likewise expected bipartisan support for the treaty, though she would not set any timetables.
“It’s in America’s interest in the particulars of this treaty and it’s in America’s interest because it puts us in a very strong leadership position to make the case about an Iran, about a North Korea, about other countries doing more to safeguard nuclear materials,” she said.
Officials said the treaty would mean Russia would join the U.S. as a partner in this leadership position.
Obama cited other efforts on which the former rivals have cooperated over the past couple years and, in terms of nuclear nonproliferation, said, “We are working together to pressure Iran to meet its international obligations.”
The breakthrough in the new START negotiations is assumed to have occurred when the two presidents last spoke by phone on Mar. 13.
The accord will call for a reduction in nuclear warheads on deployed missiles and rockets from the 2,200 now allowed to 1,500 for each country. This reduction will take place within seven years of the date the treaty enters into force. It will also lower the limit of the deployed and non-deployed missiles, rockets and bombers that transport the warheads to 800 total.
The original START, signed Jul. 31, 1991, resulted in a 40-percent reduction in the countries’ arms.
The new limits on nuclear warheads represent a 74 percent reduction from that treaty’s limits and 30 percent from the Moscow Treaty of 2002.
The Obama administration is expected to seek further reductions in arms stockpiles later on.
Speaking of the very long-term, Clinton said, “We have a vision, a long-term vision, of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons…So you have to look at this as part of our whole approach toward non-proliferation.”
The signing ceremony for the new START accord will come just days before a nuclear summit to be held in Washington beginning Apr. 12. A review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is set for the following month.
The Obama administration is expected to use these events to increase pressure on countries that are accused of violating the NPT’s ban on the spread of nuclear weapons. The START negotiations, therefore, are widely seen as directly related to Washington’s efforts to pressure Iran and North Korea to end their nuclear programmes.
For the foreseeable future, though, the vast majority of such arms – 95 percent of the nuclear warheads in the world – are still in the arsenals of the two former Cold War superpowers.
(*Adds news of official announcement, U.S. officials’ remarks, and details on treaty provisions, ratification process and implications for Russia-U.S. partnerships. Story first moved at 06.00 GMT on Mar. 26, 2010).
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