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‘Axis of Evil’ being an axis for once

On Friday, Bloomberg reported that the United Arab Emirates seized a shipment of munitions, detonators, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, headed from North Korea to Iran. The shipment was in direct violation of UN sanctions on Iran.

...the ship, owned by an Australian subsidiary of a French company and sailing under a Bahamian flag, was carrying 10 containers of arms disguised as oil equipment.

The council committee that monitors enforcement of UN sanctions against North Korea wrote letters to Iran and the government in Pyongyang asking for explanations of the violation, and one to the UAE expressing appreciation for the cooperation, the envoys said. No response has been received and the UAE has unloaded the cargo, they said.

This, as you might expect, also contributes to my ongoing nervousness over Burma and what it may have received from North Korea.

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Potentially hopeful news on Iran nuclear program

The Guardian reports that Iran is granting IAEA nuclear inspectors "significant concessions" days before the UN nuclear watchdog agency is scheduled to release a major report on the Iranian nuclear program.   The New York Times adds that this is the second of two recent signs that Iran may be willing to negotiate more fulsomely over its nuclear program.  The decision to "retain the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and not to move a more conservative ally into that position" may also show a newfound willingness in Tehran to strike a deal, says the Times

These positive signals come amidst increasing international pressure on Iran. German PM Angela Merkel, for the first time, threw her support behind "energy sanctions" should Iran not deal cooperatively with the international community on the nuclear issue.  Obama has also warned Tehran that the window for constructive negotiations is closing. 

Looking forward, there are two upcoming meetings in which Iran's nuclear program is due to come under international review.  The first is at a United Nations Security Council meeting chaired by President Obama on September 24. Then, later that day the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh will open.  Iran's nuclear status is on the agenda.  Bottom line is that this next month will be a key test of the international community's efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

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Getting closer to the CTBT…

For what it's worth, way to go, Liberia:

The total number of countries that have ratified the United Nations-backed Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has inched closer to 150 after Liberia ratified the agreement this week.

Liberia’s ratification on Monday brings the total number of countries having ratified the CTBT to 149, according to the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Of course, the real problem to implementing the CTBT is that nine of the 44 so-called "Annex 2" states -- those that had nuclear weapons technology in 1996, when the treaty was written -- still haven't ratified.  Only when they do (ahem, United States!) will the treaty go into effect.

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President Obama to chair non-proliferation meeting at the United Nations

Fresh from the office of Susan Rice:

On September 24th, the United States intends to convene a head of state-level meeting of the UN Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament during the U.S. Presidency of the Council.  The meeting will be chaired by President Obama.  The Security Council has an essential role in preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons and is also the world’s principal multilateral instrument for global security cooperation.  The session will be focused on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament broadly and not on any specific countries. Over the next several weeks, we will work closely with members of the Security Council to prepare for this important meeting.

UPDATE: Reader KP makes a good point that September 24 is also the first day of the G-20 in Pittsburgh.  Busy day for the president, it would seem! 

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Will LEU banks have ATMs?

The IAEA's Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, published an op-ed in the Guardian yesterday, outlining five global problems that he sees undermining the goal of nuclear non-proliferation. He also suggests an innovative step that needs to be taken, one that reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis' idea to "multinationalize the fuel cycle."

Last month, I proposed a key measure to strengthen non-proliferation to the IAEA's board of governors – establishing an IAEA bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to guarantee supplies to countries that need nuclear fuel for their power reactors. LEU cannot be used to make weapons. Some such mechanism will be essential in the coming decades as more and more countries introduce nuclear energy.

My proposal is to create a physical stockpile of LEU at the disposal of the IAEA as a last-resort reserve for countries with nuclear power programmes that face a supply disruption for non-commercial reasons. This would give countries confidence that they can count on reliable supplies of fuel to run their nuclear power plants, and therefore do not need to develop their own uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing capability.

I'm enthusiastic about the idea, which would seem to navigate the balance between the legitimate pursuit of nuclear fuel and the unacceptable one of nuclear weapons. But my skepticism comes into play when thinking about whether countries would be willing to come to an international fuel bank for their nuclear energy (one presumably run, or at least provided for, by Western or current nuclear powers), rather than develop it themselves.  It certainly undercuts the rationale of a country that spurns such an international offer, but would the ensuing isolation be enough to dissuade its own nuclear-nationalistic ambitions?

ElBaradei does stress that "[n]o state would be required to give up the right to develop its own fuel cycle," but in that case, I'm struggling to see how this fuel bank would replace the model whereby each country undertakes its own nuclear fuel process, and thereby acquires the potential to develop nuclear weapons. And the problem is that this model is not only dominant today, but it's fraught with nationalistic overtones. Once an issue is made an object of national pride or greatness, as it has in the Iranian case, it's difficult to undo its symbolic importance. So while I'm a proponent of a multinational organization to monitor and even control countries' fuel cycles, I'm not optimistic that this will fully deflate the incentives for beginning one's own nuclear program.

Here's the ArmsControlWonk himself: