Despite chatteratti commentary to the contrary , when it comes to blocking the further spread of nuclear weapons, the Trump administration’s taste for nuclear truculence could be a plus. It’s hard-line against Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs affords America an opportunity to set higher nonproliferation standards sorely needed for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, its efforts to upgrade America’s strategic forces could give Washington leverage to get Moscow and Beijing to curb their most threatening strategic activities.
How might Trump specifically foster strategic restraint? Two ways.
First, Trump’s push to get Iran and North Korea to forgo enriching uranium and the reprocessing spent fuel—two activities known to bring states within hours of making nuclear explosive materials—could be used to create more general rules about what constitutes peaceful nuclear activity. One of the original shortcomings of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was its vagueness regarding what nuclear materials and activities are far enough from bomb-making to be permitted. Although debated for years, this question was never fully resolved .
At the time of the NPT’s signing in 1968, those favoring enriching and reprocessing for nonnuclear weapon states had the upper hand . The only condition everyone agreed to was that these activities had to be conducted under international inspections. A half-century later, though, after the not so peaceful nuclear efforts of NPT signatories such as Taiwan, South Korea, Romania, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, universal support for such laxity lost ground.
In 2009, as a condition for civilian nuclear cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Washington required Abu Dhabi to forego enriching and reprocessing. Four years later, Washington made the same demand of Taiwan and got South Korea to defer its interest in enrichment and reprocessing as well.
Then, a year later, the Iran nuclear deal was cut. It severely restricted Iran’s uranium enrichment program and forestalled any Iranian effort to reprocess. These Iran deal restraints are time limited. But they constitute the first time since 1968 that all of the nuclear weapons state signatories of the NPT (the United States, Russia, China, the UK and France) clarified what was peaceful under the NPT. They all agreed that there was no unrestricted right under the NPT to engage in reprocessing and enrichment and that these activities, in fact, were suspect.
In this regard, the Trump administration has taken an even firmer position. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, the United States expects Iran and Saudi Arabia to forgo enrichment and reprocessing just as the UAE has. On this point, the Secretary has the clear support of at least two other senior Trump officials who work on nuclear-security issues at the highest levels . As they and others have recognized , what is peaceful under the NPT can only be so considered if attempts to divert them to make bombs can be reliably detected early enough to intervene before any weapons are built. This simply is not possible with even modest-sized reprocessing or enrichment plants .
In dealing with Iran, the Trump administration should double down on this point with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE, Morocco and Egypt, (all of which either have nuclear cooperative agreements with the United States or have discussed such cooperation). It also should do so in East Asia as it works with Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing on the North Korean problem. The White House knows that any denuclearization agreement with Pyongyang must assure the North Korea ends its enrichment and reprocessing activities.
Assuming negotiations with Pyongyang will take some months, and possibly more, it would be helpful to spotlight the advantages of at least shuttering reprocessing in the region. China’s nuclear-power expansion is slowing down. Beijing is talking about building a commercial reprocessing plant, but it hasn’t found a construction site that its public will accept. Japan won’t start its costly reprocessing plant at Rokkasho for at least another three to four years and South Korea says it will build no new additional reactors and plans to get out of nuclear power entirely. President Trump, meanwhile, has called for terminating the Department of Energy’s costly effort to fabricate surplus weapons plutonium to fuel U.S. commercial power reactors. Securing decisions to pause the recycling of plutonium in each of these countries would make sense.
This, then, brings us to Trump’s other nuclear initiative that could foster greater strategic restraint—the Pentagon’s planned upgrades to our strategic forces. Given the growing number of new Russian and Chinese missiles and Moscow’s and Beijing’s deployment of new, offensive military-capable satellites, the Pentagon aims to catch up with nuclear and nonnuclear missiles and an assortment of stealthy, maneuverable and offensive satellites of its own. The general idea is to keep our military competitive with the Russians and Chinese. What precisely we are competing for, however, is less clear.