Monthly Archives: December 2014

Obama: Iran nuclear deal ‘possible’

Al Monitor | Laura Rozen | 29 December, 2014

U.S. President Obama answers questions after his end of the year press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington

US President Barack Obama answers questions after his end of the year press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 19, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing)

In an interview aired today, Dec. 29,US President Barack Obama said a nuclear deal with Iran is possible and could be the prelude to the gradual easing of hostilities between the two nations.

He said, however, that the situations with Iran and Cuba are not the same, as Cuba is a relatively tiny country that poses little threat to the United States, while Iran is a large country that has been a state sponsor of terrorism and has pursued nuclear weapons research. In addition, Obama said, elements in Iran oppose normalization with the United States, while other Iranian constituencies favor a rapprochement.

“If we can get a deal on making sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — and that deal is possible … If we can take that big first step, then my hope would be that that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time,” Obama said in an interview with National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, taped last week.

“But in order for us to … open that aperture with respect to Iran, we have to get this nuclear issue resolved — and there’s a chance to do it,” Obama said. “The question’s going to be whether or not Iran is willing to seize it.

“I think there are elements inside of Iran that recognize the opportunity and want to take it,” Obama said. “I think there’s some hard-liners inside of Iran that are threatened by a resolution of this because they are so invested politically and emotionally in being anti-American or anti-Western that it’s frightening for them to open themselves up to the world in this way.”

Asked if he foresaw opening a US Embassy in Iran in the last two years of his presidency, Obama said, “Never say never,” but added, “I think these things have to go in steps.”

Obama said he thinks he understood what Iran needed to get from a nuclear deal. Notably, he said he recognized that Iran does have legitimate defense concerns, but said those were separate from Iran’s support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.

“What we’ve said to the Iranians is that we are willing to recognize your ability to develop a modest nuclear power program for your energy needs, that there’s a way of doing that that nevertheless gives the world assurances that you don’t have breakout capacity,” Obama said.

“And, you know, Iran suffered from a terrible war with Iraq in which millions of their countrymen were lost,” Obama said. “They have legitimate defense concerns, but those have to be separated out from the adventurism, the support of organizations like Hezbollah, the threats they’ve directed towards Israel.”

He went on, “On the one hand, you need to understand what their legitimate needs and concerns are. On the other end, you don’t need to tolerate or make excuses for positions that they’ve taken that violate international law, are contrary to US interests, are contrary to the interests of our allies.”

The Iranians have “got a chance to get right with the world,” Obama said. “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it. Because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of … Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power. … That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.”

France’s Born-Again Proliferation Beliefs Ring Hollow

The Diplomat | Yousaf Butt | December 24, 2014

How to explain French obstructionism on Iran? Look to its lucrative regional trade agreements with Gulf Arab monarchies.

Having failed to reach an agreement last month, Tehran and the P5+1 world powers – the five UN Security Council members plus Germany – decided to kick the can down the road, setting a new “final final” deadline of July 1, 2015. They all met again last week in Geneva for yet more jaw-jaw but there is little prospect of an immediate breakthrough. While the hardliners in Congress and in Iran are painted as the main impediments to a deal, there is another issue simmering below the surface: the French are reported to be out-hawking Washington on proliferation concerns by throwing up impulsive Gallic objections to an agreement. This is a decidedly odd stance for Paris to take. The real reason probably has less to do with France’s born-again proliferation beliefs than good old greed for lucrative Gulf-Arab defense and nuclear contracts.

For starters, France is itself a latecomer to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), not acceding until 1992 – a full 24 years after the NPT was opened for signature. (Iran, in contrast, was one of the original founding signatories.) Before 1992 – and even since then – France has had a poor proliferation record so its high-and-mighty attitude at the Iran talks has raised more than a few eyebrows.

During the 1960s and 70s, France supplied nuclear reactors, manpower and technology to Israel and Iraq: the now-infamous Dimona and Osirak reactors were sold by the French. France also supplied Iraq with the highly enriched uranium fuel used to power the Osirak reactor and resisted calls to modify the fuel to lower-enrichment. And both Pakistan and India got invaluable French help in developing their nuclear programs – even in the face of well-founded suspicions that these countries may be weaponizing. In the late 1970s, Paris finally had to be strong-armed by the Carter administration not to export a large reprocessing plant to Pakistan. France continued to assist India’s nuclear efforts though, even after New Delhi exploded its first nuclear device in 1974.

Even during the 2000s, Paris negotiated several nuclear cooperation agreements with fledgling nuclear states such as Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and the UAE. And Paris penned revised nuclear contracts with India, China, Brazil and South Africa. Though there is nothing illegal per se about such nuclear assistance – indeed, the NPT mandates that the nuclear-armed states help the non-weapons states with their civil nuclear programs – it does show that over the decades France has been happy to spread nuclear technology worldwide. (Incidentally, a revamped “NPT 2.0” I’ve proposed may help to tamp down the proliferation that the NPT actually promotes.)

The main reason behind French proliferation of nuclear technology has been – and still is – money. The French multinational Areva is the world’s largest nuclear company and the French state holds a whopping 87 percent stake in the enterprise. Areva made about a $1.3 billion profit last year on roughly $13 billion revenue. Similarly, Electricite de France (EDF) is the world’s largest producer of electricity and the state retains an 85 percent share in that company also. More than 80 percent of EDF’s electricity is generated from nuclear power. EDF’s profit and revenue numbers are comparable to Areva’s. Safe to say, France is heavily vested in its nuclear power sector and stands to gain huge profits by promoting it worldwide.

Enter Saudi Arabia, a noted adversary of Iran. Last year, both government-controlled nuclear conglomerates Areva and EDF got together to host about 200 Saudi business and industry representatives at a “Suppliers Day” event held in Jeddah. The French Ambassador to the Kingdom said “the aim of this meeting is very clear, France has been the first country to sign [a] government to government agreement on nuclear and energy…and France has a lot to bring in terms of the best nuclear technology in the world.”  Such long-term infrastructure contracts with the Saudis could be worth about 40 billion euros ($48.7 billion) to the French. Similar deals have already been inked with the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, also an adversary of Iran.

So France’s obstructionism on the Iran nuclear agreement is easier to understand through the prism of its lucrative regional trade agreements with Sunni Arab monarchies opposed to Iran.

Apart from the nuclear power deals, France has also finalized lucrative military hardware and service agreements with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. For example, for the first time since 2007 France penned a military contract with the UAE last year. The billion dollar contract for two spy satellites couldn’t have been better timed: French military contracts lost a quarter of their value the year before. The Gulf military contracts are a life-saver to the French defense sector. Similarly, just a month after the deal with the UAE, France also signed a billion Euro contract with Saudi Arabia to overhaul four frigates and two refueling ships.

Given these – and future – lucrative military and infrastructure contracts it is unsurprising that France would want to curry favor with the Gulf Arab monarchies by holding up a deal with Iran. The irony of it is that for all its holier-than-thou proliferation protestations during the P5+1 talks with Iran, France is super-keen to earn some cash by spreading nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While objecting to the Iranian nuclear program, the French are helping the Saudi program.

Unless something gives, France will continue to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding at the P5+1 talks. So the next time the French act as  – in the words of one diplomat –  “a significant counterweight on the impulse of Obama to make concessions,” to Iran you can be sure it’s not because the French are worried about nuclear proliferation but because they are seeing dollar signs in their Pierre Cardin shades.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council in London. The views expressed here are his own.

Real costs of nuclear power

The Japan Times | Commentary | December 22, 2014

p8-sentaku-a-20141223

Public opinion in Japan is split down the middle over whether the government should permit power companies to restart idled nuclear power plants.

At issue is which should be given priority — plant safety or economic efficiency.

Since new safety standards were introduced following the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture of Kyushu Electric Power Co. has become the first of 13 nuclear power plants nationwide undergoing screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority to get the go-ahead for restart after consent was given by Gov. Yuichiro Ito on Nov. 7.

Ito told reporters that the restart is unavoidable in view of prevailing circumstances. Without doubt, one of those circumstances is the fees that consumers have to pay for electricity.

Indeed, after learning of Ito’s decision, one government official expressed his hope that the restart of the Sendai plant will serve to reduce reliance on costly thermal power generation and put an end to a series of rate hikes adopted by power companies in the aftermath of the stoppage of their nuclear power plants.

But will things turn out that way?

Recently a fact has surfaced that contradicts the myth of low power generating costs by nuclear power. More surprisingly, the fact originated from the power industry itself.

At a press conference in September, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), who also heads Kansai Electric Power Co., said that in order for private corporations to be able to operate nuclear power plants, it is essential that all costs are recovered without fail. For that purpose, he added, his industry would like to seek assistance from the public sector.

The FEPC is particularly anxious for introduction of the “Contract for Difference” (CfD) scheme. The CfD system has already been introduced in Britain. It is similar to the feed-in tariffs (FIT) scheme in Japan under which power companies are required to purchase electricity generated by renewable energy sources at fixed prices.

But there is a difference between the FIT scheme and the CfD scheme. Under the CfD system for nuclear power, the standard price of electricity would be determined by taking into consideration not only the normal cost of power generation but also the future costs of disposing of spent nuclear fuel and decommissioning reactors.

The difference between the actual power rates and this standard price would be collected from consumers and diverted to the utilities.

An official of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry says this system is fair because in the event of the standard price becoming lower than the actual power rates, the utilities would pay the difference to consumers.

Until now, both the power industry and the government have been emphasizing the “low costs” of generating electricity with nuclear power.

If what they have been saying is true, theoretically consumers should be able to expect that their electricity bills, which have gone up after thermal power generation assumed greater proportions, to come down with the restart of nuclear power stations, whose costs for power generation have been touted as low. But a surprising fact has come to the fore.

It’s the news that the standard CfD price envisaged for the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in England, being expanded by Electricite de France, a French utility company, for completion in 2023, would be equivalent to ¥15.7 per kilowatt-hour, which would lead to doubling the prevailing power rate.

According to a journalist specializing in the power industry, that price is ¥0.4 higher than the price at which Japanese power companies are required to purchase electricity generated by wind power under the current FIT scheme, and only ¥1 cheaper than the FIT price for electricity from solar power generation. Moreover, he says, the standard price for the Hinkley Point plant is guaranteed for 35 years, which is longer than the period set for purchase of power generated by renewable energy sources. This means that the financial burden on consumers will become greater.

Even business circles in Japan, which have longed for an expansion of nuclear power generation, are opposed to the introduction of the CfD scheme. A high-ranking official of a major manufacturing company has said that restarting nuclear power plants will have no merit if it leads to higher electricity prices, and that if the CfD system is adopted his company will have no choice but to drastically increase power generation on its own.

In a statement issued in May 2014, Japan’s three major business organizations — the Japan Business Federation, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Japan Association of Corporate Executives — said restarting nuclear power plants should be accelerated because the incremental fuel cost burdens resulting from reliance on thermal power instead of nuclear power had already reached ¥3.6 trillion annually.

At the same time, however, the three bodies called for a thorough review of the FIT system under which utilities have to buy power generated by renewable energy sources at fixed prices. The scheme had brought the total amount of money paid by the utilities to about ¥650 billion during the third year of the system’s implementation.

They also warned that the burdens on ordinary citizens would continue to rise rapidly and the heavy burden would stay for a long period of time.

A research fellow at a think tank well versed in energy issues says that if the CfD formula is applied to existing nuclear power plants, the annual payout by the power companies will exceed ¥3 trillion, which is about the same as the current incremental costs arising from the use of alternative fuels.

If that happens, he says, the utilities won’t have to lower power rates for consumers after restarting nuclear stations and will have a good excuse for maintaining the present high electricity rates.

Should this be the case, the restart of nuclear power plants will not lead to lowering of the power rates as ardently hoped for by business circles, and this in turn will create a major conflict among them as to whether those power plants should be retained.

The new development means that the FEPC has virtually admitted that it is extremely costly to run nuclear power plants if the expenses needed for disposal of spent nuclear fuel and decommissioning of reactors are taken into account; therefore, the power rates should be set higher.

The think tank researcher says, “We are beginning to see the true costs of nuclear power generation.”

The aforementioned executive of the manufacturing firm accuses the utilities of claiming at first that nuclear power generation will ensure an inexpensive and stable supply of electricity but then reversing the position by admitting that costs turned out to be much higher.

A high-ranking official of an electric power company counters that the utilities have supplied power inexpensively based on a tacit understanding that the costs of decommissioning reactors would be borne by the government and that, therefore, it is utterly unreasonable now to be told to bear such costs on their own by setting aside large sums of money as reserves.

Behind this statement is a history of the government taking the initiative in building nuclear power plants from the national security point of view — making sure that Japan can meet its own energy needs and asserting implicitly that it could produce nuclear weapons.

The utility executive has confided that even though his company insisted it had such a large capacity that it would not need nuclear power plants, it was forced by the government to build them in line with the national policy.

Power companies have become increasingly distrustful of the government after Tepco was placed under state control and given additional responsibilities, including shouldering more than ¥1 trillion in costs for decommissioning reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They fear that they might someday face the same fate.

A business magazine editor who is well informed about FEPC says that if a utility is to bear the costs of reactor decommissioning and spent fuel disposal, the money necessary for those purposes will have to come from the CfD scheme. The federation is of the view that, absent such an arrangement, nuclear power plants would lead to power companies’ bankruptcy, according to the editor.

Whether decommissioning is financed by the government with taxpayer money or by higher power rates under the CfD system, the ultimate burden would fall on ordinary citizens.

It is no longer a choice between safety and economic efficiency of nuclear power plants. It is clearly unreasonable to rely on nuclear power generation that the utilities themselves have admitted is low in both safety and economic efficiency.

It is high time that all citizens overcame the emotional confrontation between the proponents and opponents of nuclear power generation and faced the reality.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes.

Japan’s anti-nuke diplomacy needs hibakusha’s viewpoint

The Asahi Shimbun | Editorial | December 22, 2014

For nearly seven decades since the end of World War II, survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been calling for a world without nuclear weapons. But their voices are still ignored, not by the international community but by the Japanese government.

After so many years, the government’s policy still doesn’t clearly reflect their viewpoint.

The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons on Dec. 8-9 brought to the fore many related challenges.

The conference, the third on this theme, highlighted the problem of significant differences in positions and views concerning key issues between atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, and the Japanese government.

There is rapidly growing international support for the view that nuclear weapons are inhumane and should be eliminated. But the Japanese government’s stance toward the issue remains equivocal. It sometimes even shows signs of trying to buck the international trend.

It is assumed that the Japanese government has been pursuing the goal of the elimination of nuclear arms in its disarmament diplomacy in recent years. It should incorporate more of the voices of hibakusha into its diplomatic efforts for the cause.

At the Vienna conference, the rift between hibakusha and the Japanese government was reflected in the reactions of the audience to the remarks made by both sides.

Two atomic bomb survivors and Yasuyoshi Komizo, secretary-general of Mayors for Peace, who traveled from Hiroshima to Vienna to attend the conference, resolutely called for progress toward a global ban on nuclear arms. They received enthusiastic applause.

But Toshio Sano, head of the Permanent Delegation of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament, made remarks that stood in sharp contrast with the passionate calls for the elimination of nuclear arms.

On the first day of the conference, Sano stunned many attendants when he, referring to a panelist’s view that humankind could not deal with the disastrous consequences of a nuclear blast, said such a belief was “a little pessimistic.”

Sano later told reporters that what he meant by his remark was that nations or international organizations should consider enhancing relief measures for victims included in past United Nations resolutions.

But the purpose of the conference was to promote the international perception that the consequences of nuclear explosions are far more devastating than previously thought and actually impossible to deal with. This is the view that Japan also confirmed in the past two conferences on the issue.

In its official statement issued on the second day of the conference, Japan didn’t reiterate the point made by Sano in his controversial remark. But Japan’s statement only repeated its traditional position that the world should move ahead gradually in its efforts to reduce nuclear arms under existing frameworks like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Tokyo’s position is in line with the stance of the United States.

The number of countries attending the international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has been increasing steadily.

A total of 158 countries took part in the Vienna conference, including the United States and Britain, which attended for the first time.

It is really regrettable that at this venue the representative of the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks acted in a way that can put a damper on international momentum toward a future without nuclear arms.

It is quite natural that hibakusha criticized Sano’s remark, and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida admonished him.

How should Japan adjust its security policy, which has been based on the protection provided by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” so that it can contribute more to international efforts toward a world without nuclear weapons?

It is time for the government to start thinking seriously about this question and taking actions accordingly.

This will, of course, be no easy challenge.

Only by tackling this challenge head-on, however, will Japan be able to serve as a bridge between nuclear powers obsessed with the theory of nuclear deterrent and non-nuclear countries seeking to achieve the abolition of nuclear arms as a vital humanitarian imperative.

UK admits to not considering impact of nuclear detonation on third country

Abolition 2000 | December 21, 2014

Tobias-Ellwood-2-300x214

Mr Tobias Ellwood, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary
(Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Mr Tobias Ellwood, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), admitted in the House of Commons on December 18 that the UK government has not undertaken any research to determine what the UK’s obligations in international law would be in the event of economic or environmental damage being caused to other countries by radioactive fallout or blast arising from a British nuclear weapon being (a) accidentally detonated or (b) deliberately targeted and the effects spread to a third country.
Paul-Flynn-267x300
Paul Flynn MP

The statement was made in response to Written Question 218279 asked on December 11 by Paul Flynn MP, a member of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), following the Third Conference on Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons held in Vienna on Dec 8-9, 2014.

On December 17, PNND Council Member Jeremy Corbyn, who participated in the Vienna conference, lodged a follow-up Early Day Motion EDM 642, welcoming the Government’s attendance at the Vienna conference, and calling on the Government to publish research on the effect of the detonation of a UK Trident warhead in time for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in April and May 2015.

The Austrian government made a pledge at the closing of the Vienna conference to take forward the conference conclusions to the NPT Review Conference. Austria, in particular, called on states to ‘identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’ and in particular for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, to ‘determine the next steps for the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear-weapon-free world.’

Parlamentarisches Treffen für eine nuklear-waffenfreie Welt

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the roundtable hosted
by the Austrian Parliament on Dec 9

The Austrian pledge also recognised the vital role that elected representatives play for advancing the shared objective of a nuclear weapon free world.’ Such actions being taken by parliamentarians were outlined in the PNND statement to the Vienna conference and the statement by the Inter Parliamentary Union.

Parliamentary actions for nuclear abolition were also discussed at the Civil Society Forum on Dec 6-7 and at the parliamentary forum on December 9 hosted by the Austrian Parliament and organized by PNND and the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU). Jeremy Corbyn was a keynote speaker at the second of these events.

Obama’s Nuclear Hypocrisy

Obama’s Nuclear Hypocrisy: He Promised A World Without Nukes, What Happened?

Instead, nuclear abolition itself is being abolished.

Mother Jones | James Carroll | Mon Dec. 15, 2014

obummer2

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

It was one of the most stirring speeches an American president had ever given. The place was Prague; the year was 2009; the president was the recently sworn in Barack Obama. The promise made that day is worth recalling at length, especially since, by now, it is largely forgotten:

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…'”

President Obama had been in office only three months when, boldly claiming his place on the world stage, he unequivocally committed himself and his country to a nuclear abolition movement that, until then, had at best existed somewhere on the distant fringes of power politics. “I know,” he added,

“that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible… and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.”

The simple existence of nuclear weapons, an American president declared, paved the road to perdition for humanity.

Obama as The Captain Ahab of Nuclear Weapons

At that moment, the foundations for an imagined abolitionist world were modest indeed, but not nonexistent. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had, for instance, struck a bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots, under which a path to abolition was treated as real. The deal seemed clear enough: the have-nots would promise to forego obtaining nukes and, in return, the world’s reigning nuclear powers would pledge to take, in the words of the treaty, “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

For decades before the Obama moment, however, the superpower arsenals of nuclear warheads continued to grow like so many mushrooms, while new nuclear states—Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea—built their own impressive arsenals. In those years, with the singular exception of South Africa, nuclear-weapons states simply ignored their half of the NPT bargain and the crucial clause mandating progress toward eventual disarmament was all but forgotten.

When the Cold War ended in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the next year Americans elected as president Bill Clinton, who was famously against the Vietnam War, it was at least possible to imagine that nukes might go the way of internationally banned chemical weapons. But Washington chose otherwise. Despite a paucity of enemies anywhere on Earth, the Pentagon’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review insisted on maintaining the American nuclear arsenal at Cold War levels as a “hedge,” an insurance policy, against an imagined return of Communism, fascism, or something terrible in Russia anyway—and Clinton accepted the Pentagon’s position.

Soon enough, however, even prominent hawks of the Cold War era began to worry that such a nuclear insurance policy could itself ignite a global fire. In 1999, a chief architect of the nuclear mindset, Paul Nitze, stepped away from a lifetime obsession with building up nuclear power to denounce nukes as “a threat mostly to ourselves” and to explicitly call for unilateral disarmament. Other former apostles of nuclear realpolitik also came to embrace the goal of abolition. In 2008, four high priests of the cult of nuclear normalcy—former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, and former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger—jointly issued a sacrilegious renunciation of their nuclear faith on the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” they wrote, “and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”

Unfortunately, such figures had come to Jesus only after leaving office, when they were exempt from the responsibility of matching their high-flown rhetoric with the gritty work of making it real.

Obama in Prague was another matter. He was at the start of what would become an eight-year presidency and his rejection of nuclear fatalism rang across the world. Only months later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part because of this stunning commitment. A core hope of the post-World-War-II peace movement, always marginal, had at last been embraced in the seat of power. A year later, at Obama’s direction, the Pentagon, in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, actually advanced the president’s purpose, committing itself to “a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.”

“The United States,” that document promised, “will not develop new nuclear warheads.” When it came to the future of the nuclear arsenal, a program of responsible maintenance was foreseen, but no new ground was to be broken. “Life Extension Programs,” the Pentagon promised, “will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide new military capabilities.”

Obama’s timing in 2009 was critical. The weapons and delivery systems of the nuclear arsenal were aging fast. Many of the country’s missiles, warheads, strategic bombers, and nuclear-powered submarines dated back to the early Cold War era and were effectively approaching their radioactive sell-by dates. In other words, massive reductions in the arsenal had to begin before pressures to launch a program for the wholesale replacement of those weapons systems grew too strong to resist. Such a program, in turn, would necessarily mean combining the latest technological innovations with ever greater lethality in a way guaranteed to reinvigorate the entire enterprise across the world—the polar opposite of “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

Obama, in other words, was presiding over a golden moment, but an apocalyptic deadline was bearing down. And sure enough, that deadline came crashing through when three things happened: Vladimir Putin resurfaced as an incipient fascist intent on returning Russia to great power status; extremist Republicans took Congress hostage; and Barack Obama found himself lashed, like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, to “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on half a heart and half a lung.” Insiders often compare the Pentagon to Moby Dick, the Great White Whale, and Obama learned why. The peaceful intentions with which he began his presidency were slapped away by the flukes of the monster, like so many novice oarsmen in a whaling skiff.

Hence Obama’s course reversals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; hence the White House stumbles, including an unseemly succession of secretaries of defense, the fourth of whom, Ashton Carter, can reliably be counted on to advance the renewal of the nuclear force. The Pentagon’s “intangible malignity,” in Melville’s phrase, was steadily quickened by both Putin and the Republicans, but Obama’s half-devoured heart shows in nothing so much as his remarkably full-bore retreat, in both rhetoric and policy, from the goal of nuclear abolition.

A recent piece by New York Times science correspondent William J. Broad made the president’s nuclear failure dramatic. Cuts to the US nuclear stockpile initiated by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, he pointed out, totaled 14,801 weapons; Obama’s reductions so far: 507 weapons. In 2010, a new START treaty between Moscow and Washington capped future deployed nukes at 1,500. As of this October, the US still deploys 1,642 of them and Russia 1,643; neither nation, that is, has achieved START levels, which only count deployed weapons. (Including stored but readily re-armed and targeted nukes, the US arsenal today totals about 4,800 weapons.)

In order to get the votes of Senate Republicans to ratify the START treaty, Obama made what turned out to be a devil’s bargain. He agreed to lay the groundwork for a vast “modernization” of the US nuclear arsenal, which, in the name of updating an aged system, is already morphing into a full-blown reinvention of the arms cache at an estimated future cost of more than a trillion dollars. In the process, the Navy wants, and may get, 12 new strategic submarines; the Air Force wants, and may get, a new long-range strike bomber force. Bombers and submarines would, of course, both be outfitted with next-generation missiles, and we’d be off to the races. The arms races.

All of this unfolds as Vladimir Putin warms the hearts of nuclear enthusiasts everywhere not only by his aggressions in Ukraine, but also by undercutting the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a new ground-launched cruise missile. Indeed, just this fall, Russia successfully launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It seems that Moscow, too, can modernize.
On a Twenty-First Century Road to Perdition

Responding to the early Obama vision of “effective measures” toward nuclear disarmament, and following up on that 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, senior Pentagon officials pursued serious discussions about practical measures to reduce the nuclear arsenal. Leading experts advocated a shift away from the Cold War’s orgasmic strike targeting doctrine that still necessitates an arsenal of weapons counted in the thousands.

In fact, in response to budget constraints, legal obligations under a jeopardized non-proliferation treaty, and the most urgent moral mandate facing the country, America’s nuclear strategy could shift without wrenching difficulty, at the very least, to one of “minimal deterrence.” Hardcore national security mavens tell us this. Such a shift would involve a reduction in both the deployed and stored nuclear arsenal to something like 500 warheads. Even if that goal were pursued unilaterally, it would leave more than enough weaponry to deter any conceivable state-based nuclear threat, including Russia’s, no matter what Putin may do.

Five hundred is, of course, a long way from zero and so from the president’s 2009 goal of abolition, and yet opposition even to that level would be fierce in Washington. Though disarming and disposing of thousands of nukes would cost far less than replacement, it would still be expensive, and you can count on one thing: Pentagon nuclearists would find firm allies among congressional Republicans, who would be loathe to fund such a retreat from virtue’s Armageddon. Meanwhile, confronting such cuts, the defense industry’s samurai lobbyists would unsheathe their swords.

But if a passionate Obama could make a compelling case for a nuclear-free world from Prague in 2009, why not go directly to the American people and make the case today? There is, of course, no sign that the president intends to do such a thing any longer, but if a commander-in-chief were to order nuclear reductions into the hundreds, the result might actually be a transformation of the American political conscience. In the process, the global dream of a nuclear-free world could be resuscitated and the commitment of non-nuclear states (including Iran) to refrain from nuclear-weapons development could be rescued. Most crucially, there would no longer be any rationale for the large-scale reinvention of the American nuclear arsenal, a deadly project this nation is even now preparing to launch. At the very least, a vocal rededication to an ultimate disarmament, to the actual abolition of nuclear weapons, would keep that road open for a future president to re-embark upon.

Alas, Pentagon advocates of “minimal deterrence” have already been overridden. The president’s once fiercely held conviction is now a mere shadow of itself. As happened with Ahab’s wrecked whaling ship, tumultuous seas are closing over the hope that once seized the world’s attention. Take it for granted that, in retirement and out of power, ex-president Obama will rediscover his one-time commitment to a world freed from the nuclear nightmare. He will feel the special responsibility proper to a citizen of “the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon.” The then-former president’s speeches on the subject will be riveting and his philanthropy will be sharply targeted. All for naught.

Because of decisions likely to be taken this year and next, no American president will ever again be able to embrace this purpose as Obama once did. Nuclear weapons will instead become a normalized and permanent part of the twenty-first century American arsenal, and therefore of the arsenals of many other nations; nuclear weapons, that is, will have become an essential element of the human future—as long as that future lasts.

So yes, mark these days down. Nuclear abolition itself is being abolished. Meanwhile, let us acknowledge, as that hopeful young president once asked us to, that we know where this road leads.

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

American Iranian Council | 21 dec. 2014

In this exclusive interview, Gary Sick tells host Kayvon Afshari that the core issue separating the US and Iran isn’t the nuclear issue, terrorism, or human rights. Rather, the challenge that must be dealt with, he says, is history.