Nuclear credibility

February 15, 2004

THE LATEST discovery about Iran's 18-year-long secret nuclear weapons development program -- it possesses a design for an advanced centrifuge to enrich uranium -- couldn't have been more timely. The news broke within 24 hours of President Bush's speech Wednesday in which he offered a new U.S. plan to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And of course that speech followed disclosure the week before of perhaps history's worst case of nuclear proliferation by a Pakistani-led black-market network.

No one can argue with Mr. Bush: "The greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons." The need for tighter international controls is indisputable, and Mr. Bush's initiative more than welcome.

But his plan, in essentially sidestepping strengthening international nuclear treaties in favor of voluntary coalitions, exudes an American unilateralism already backfiring on the world stage. Moreover, his proposals are undercut by long-standing U.S. failures to live up to its own nuclear-control responsibilities -- a discrediting double standard.

The most controversial of the president's proposals is barring nonnuclear powers from acquiring enrichment technology for civilian nuclear energy, a loophole used by Iran and North Korea as cover for their weapons programs. To counter charges of discrimination against developing nations, Mr. Bush proposes that nuclear powers offer those nations, at reasonable cost, uranium for power generation. The laudable goal: prevent new nations from gaining the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

But critically, the U.S. position on a stronger proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- to ban all production of such material for weapons -- remains unstated.

In line with the Bush administration's tensions with the United Nations agency, the IAEA was only given one day's notice of the new U.S. plan.

Nonetheless, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who last year declared the world's nuclear-control regime "battered," quickly offered support for Mr. Bush -- along with the rebuke that the United States and other nuclear powers are a big part of the problem for not living up to their promises in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to abandon weapons programs.

Indeed, the Bush administration is increasing spending on researching more usable nuclear "bunker busters" and cutting U.S. funds for better securing former Soviet weapons. It isn't censuring Pakistan after it admitted that the father of its atomic bomb ran a global nuclear bazaar for the last 15 years. Then there's the long-standing blind eye of the United States to the open secret of Israel's nuclear weapons.

Mr. Bush is right to raise alarms about the spread of nuclear weapons: "We must confront the danger with open eyes and unbending purpose," he said last week. But in that difficult challenge, the United States can only find success if it leads by example.

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