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New START’s Shaky Start

February 4, 2011

James “Jim” Colbert is a Policy Director at JINSA  and is Deputy Editor of JINSA’s semiannual scholarly journal, The Journal of International Security Affairs.

[The following article appeared on February 4, 2011,  in AOL News.]

New START’s Shaky Start

by James Colbert

In the last-minute rush to secure Senate approval of the New START arms control treaty with Russia, the White House argued that Senate passage of the accord would secure Russian assistance in curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons development program.

But despite the administration’s claim that the treaty would “create a stronger U.S.-Russia bond in a broader international effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” so far Iran isn’t showing any signs of restraint.

On Jan. 22 — exactly one month after the Senate approved the treaty — diplomatic efforts to restart talks on Iran’s nuclear program failed. Iranian officials refused to discuss the program unless representatives from the U.S., Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany agreed upfront to a list of conditions that included an immediate cessation of economic sanctions.

The six-party talks, which took place in Istanbul, Turkey, ended precisely where Iran desired, giving up nothing but still holding open the door for continued talks. Tellingly, the next day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a willingness to engage in future talks.

Playing both sides of the nuclear issue has long been recognized as Tehran’s strategy to delay Western punishment for not opening its nuclear program to full inspections.

Just a week before the Istanbul parley, Iran’s foreign minister and head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, responded to a comment by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Iran’s nuclear program was being delayed by international sanctions, telling reporters, “The recent sanctions did not create any problems for our nuclear activities. … Our activities, especially in [uranium] enrichment, are also continuing very strongly. … The production of enriched uranium is growing.”

Media reports indicate that U.S. officials worry that in the coming months Iran might deploy a new generation of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Meanwhile, Russian cooperation on Iran was never going to be secured by signing the START treaty. Moscow, a strict practitioner of realpolitik, at varying times has supported and withheld support for Iran’s nuclear program. And even if Moscow pledges no future aid, at this stage it is not at all clear how helpful that would be.

What’s more, despite administration assurances that New START wouldn’t impinge on America’s ability to defend itself from attack by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, announced Jan. 11 that Russia will withdraw from the START treaty if the U.S. unilaterally deploys anti-missile defense systems.

This flies in the face of President Barack Obama’s Dec. 18 letter intended to sway skeptical Senate leaders. In that letter, Obama vowed that “as long as I am president, and as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces and our allies and partners.”

The actual text of the treaty says otherwise. The preamble explicitly recognizes “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms.” When that was brought to their attention, administration officials, shifting gears, insisted that the preamble is not binding.

Rather than accepting the White House’s dodge, however, Russian politicians consider the preamble to be fully binding. Kosachev declared, “Such an approach can be regarded as the U.S.’s attempt to find an option to build up its strategic potential, and the Russian lawmakers cannot agree with this.”

Iran poses a clear danger to regional stability and has indicated that its future nuclear and missile capabilities would be used to influence global events. The proliferation of nuclear fuel enrichment technology and know-how, coupled with ballistic missile systems, is indeed a serious problem requiring strong policies to roll it back.

Continued development and deployment of American missile defense systems is precisely what is needed to deter the growing number of hostile states in pursuing such systems, including Iran, and should not be foresworn in the pursuit of a reduction in offensive nuclear weapons with Russia.

Far from New START’s promise, any meaningful reduction in Russia’s offensive nuclear weapons will be offset by the far more relevant reduction in American missile defense capabilities. They are surely laughing at this turn of events in Tehran.

James Colbert is a policy director at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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