When Russia recently signed a deal to supply Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with nuclear reactors, the silence from Washington was deafening. The Obama administration was probably concerned that strong U.S. opposition to the deal could undermine cooperation with Moscow on several important fronts, and that it could give the adversarial President Chavez a propaganda windfall. These concerns are not without merit, but they are also not an excuse for inaction.
Over the past few years, Russia has shown that it may be more interested in making money than in controlling weapons proliferation.
Moscow delivered the fuel for Iran's Bushehr reactor last August, two months after the United Nations Security Council passed a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear noncompliance and suspicions of possible nuclear military activities. Indeed, despite its increasing cooperation with the United States on tightening UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, Russia ultimately proved unwilling to use Bushehr as leverage for bringing Iran into line with Security Council demands.
Now President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to build two large reactors, and a smaller research reactor, for President Chavez.
It is understandable for Moscow to engage in the lucrative nuclear power business. But it is also understandable for Washington and its allies to judge states, like people, by the friends they keep.
President Chavez's regime in Venezuela, after all, actively seeks to undermine US interests at every possible opportunity -- a goal he shares with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet since 2005, Russia has sold approximately $4 billion in military hardware to the increasingly autocratic and unpredictable Chavez.
More importantly, a recent report indicates that Caracas may be willing to help Tehran acquire uranium that could eventually be fed into centrifuges to produce weapons-grade material. Iran's uranium enrichment program is at the heart of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concerns and Tehran continues to reject UN Security Council demands to halt its enrichment activities.
This cooperation could one day flow in both directions, for example, with Tehran repaying Chavez by sharing centrifuge designs or other sensitive nuclear technologies. Such an outcome is not far-fetched. Many nuclear states' weapons programs have been greatly aided through such transfers.
To be sure, President Medvedev has worked with Washington to further some important mutual goals, including by signing a follow-on agreement to the expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Russia's President has also canceled a long-planned sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran that had produced consternation in Washington and Tel Aviv because of their ability to severely limit military options against Tehran. Increased Russian cooperation with NATO may also be on the horizon.
But economic motives may play a role in some of these decisions too. Nuclear force reductions are, after all, in Moscow's economic interest. And Russia may already have a new customer for its S-300 missiles in President Chavez.
Why then has State Department spokesman PJ Crowley asserted that the administration has "confidence" in Russian nuclear export decisions, and why has President Obama asserted Venezuela's right to civilian nuclear power?
Three explanations come to mind.
First, the administration might fear that full-throated opposition could undermine cooperative bilateral efforts with Moscow on arms control and, potentially, missile defense. It might also harbor concerns of risking hard-fought gains in Russian cooperation on Security Council sanctions against Iran -- a much more pressing concern given that Venezuela is still many years from an active nuclear program.
Finally, President Obama likely seeks to avoid giving Chavez additional fodder for his anti-American propaganda. Even the President's mild suggestion that "Venezuela needs to act responsibly" as it pursues nuclear energy has prompted Chavez to counter that "Obama has started a war by spreading doubt" about Venezuela's program.
While the administration is wise to be wary of such obvious risks, its talented team of diplomats and nuclear experts must not succumb to inaction. The stakes involved are too high.
A good first step might be for the Obama administration to privately urge Russia to make construction of nuclear plants in Venezuela contingent upon Caracas signing an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA. This agreement would grant Agency inspectors broad latitude to investigate Venezuelan nuclear activities and, thus, provide an important buffer against diversion of civilian nuclear material for military purposes.
Washington's behind-the-scenes push could be accompanied by a public effort to emphasize the Iran-Venezuela connection, particularly in the context of U.S., EU, and UN Security Council sanctions. If the Obama administration is able to frame the debate in this way through deft public diplomacy, it would raise the political stakes and give greater currency to its entreaties to Moscow.
Simply put, the United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in a world where states have often pursued nuclear weapons under the cover of civilian programs, least of all when it comes to Venezuela and its friends in Tehran.