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Page last updated at 23:24 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 00:24 UK

Barack Obama's nuclear summit of small victories

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, Washington

The Nuclear Security Summit in plenary session, 13 April
The summit brought together nearly 50 states in Washington

This was, according to President Barack Obama, an enormously productive day. The nearly 50 countries gathered here for the Nuclear Security Summit, he said, had seized the opportunity.

First of all there had been agreement on the urgency and seriousness of the threat - that had not been the case before the summit.

The leaders also adopted Mr Obama's ambitious goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. A detailed work plan has been agreed too and progress is to be reviewed at a follow-up summit scheduled for South Korea in 2012.

President Obama stressed that this summit was not about talk but about commitment to action. That said, safeguarding vulnerable nuclear materials depends upon the will of participating governments to act - and there can be no guarantees of progress.

Will the political will remain strong? Will there be sufficient funding? Will, for example, Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure - the security of which raises widespread fears - be any safer in four years' time than it is today?

Small victories

The work plan includes some steps that individual governments must take and others that the international community must take in concert.

The leaders have agreed to give more resources to the International Atomic Energy Agency - the UN's nuclear watchdog - to fulfil its vital security work. It is clearly ludicrous that the IAEA's existing budget for this kind of work depends upon it going round cap in hand for additional resources.

The battle to safeguard nuclear materials will be a struggle with small victories in different parts of the world.

Already at this summit Ukraine has agreed to give up all of its highly enriched uranium. Russia is to close its last reactor producing plutonium for military purposes, and Russia and the US have agreed to dispose of large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.

But this last US-Russian agreement illustrates some of the problems involved. The new protocol signed at this summit essentially updates a deal going back to the year 2000 that, for one reason or another, was never implemented.

So Mr Obama is clearly right when he says that this work will require a serious and sustained effort. And it is clear that the Obama administration intends to keep this issue at the top of the global agenda.

Preparation for May

Hovering in the air over this summit was another issue - the future of Iran's nuclear programme. Many of the bilateral meetings touched upon additional economic sanctions against Tehran.

President Obama clearly pressed his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, on this issue but with only limited results. China is still opposed to more sanctions though the Americans came away convinced that, at the end of the day, China, as in the past, would back additional measures.

Iran too was top of the Israeli delegation's agenda. The Israeli team was headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

His boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, had declined to attend - possibly fearing a diplomatic ambush by Arab delegations wanting to focus upon Israel's own nuclear weapons programme (the existence of which it has never confirmed) or maybe because he just did not want to have another row with the Obama administration on Israeli building activities in east Jerusalem.

Nonetheless Mr Meridor stressed in an exclusive BBC interview that while Israel backed the Obama nuclear security agenda, its main focus was still on Iran.

One way or another these issues - proliferation, arms control and the security of nuclear materials - are all bound together. They will be discussed again at the forthcoming review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York in May.

In many ways all of Mr Obama's recent efforts - the revised US nuclear doctrine, the new Start treaty with Russia, this nuclear security conference - are all preparation for that event.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It is widely regarded as ailing, badly in need of repair. That is the next item on Mr Obama's nuclear "to do" list.



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