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Not-So-Happy Fifth Anniversary of President Obama’s Prague Speech

April 4, 2014

Five years ago in Prague, President Obama announced he would seek “a world without nuclear weapons.” Since that time:

  • Iran continued to accelerate its nuclear program until President Obama seemingly conceded an Iranian right to enrich uranium. President Obama then threatened to veto legislation implementing his own policy on Iran, and now it appears talks with Iran will continue for the sake of talks.
  • North Korea conducted at least two nuclear weapon tests and multiple tests of missile technology specifically designed to put the United States at risk. President Obama sought to reward this behavior with food assistance.
  • Russia was given the gift of a one-sided arms control treaty (New START). Significant Russian cheating on its arms control obligations was later publicly revealed, information of which was not shared with the Senate when it considered New START. Yet another round of reductions continues to be sought, while Russia occupies part of Ukraine.

President Obama admonished in the Prague speech that “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something,” Given all of this, it is clear that rules are not binding, violations will not be punished, and President Obama’s words mean nothing.


President Obama said in Prague he would “seek engagement with Iran” to address its illicit nuclear program, continuing: “we believe in dialogue.” Throughout his presidency, he has carried out that promise, while Iran used that time of dialogue to accelerate its nuclear program.

For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency director general pointed out last year that Iran was at the time installing more advanced centrifuges specifically for production of enriched uranium.

President Obama then went on national television on November 23, 2013, to claim victory for his efforts, announcing an interim agreement had been reached with Iran regarding its nuclear program. It turns out that agreement actually wasn’t reached until January 20, 2014, when a State Department spokesman announced it had gone into effect. During the period of this interim deal, the parties are to seek a final, comprehensive solution.  

In the State of the Union Address this year, President Obama said if Iran does not “seize this opportunity” presented by the interim deal, “then [he would] be the first to call for more sanctions.” A bipartisan majority of Senators introduced legislation carrying out this very policy, the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (S. 1881). It provides new sanctions authority against Iran, but holds that authority in abeyance until the expiration of the interim deal, thereby giving Iran a chance to seize this diplomatic opportunity and providing consequences if it does not. President Obama threatened to veto this bill.

In July 2009, Secretary of State Clinton said Iran’s opportunity for diplomatic engagement on the issue “will not remain open indefinitely.” In October 2009, President Obama said “we’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking ... [T]he United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely.” Secretary of State Kerry reiterated this position one year ago, saying Iran’s opportunity for a diplomatic solution cannot “remain open indefinitely,” and “talks will not go on for the sake of talks.”

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program continue next week. Given President Obama’s threat to veto any consequences for Iran not negotiating seriously, there appears little urgency for Iran to reach a final agreement. Indeed, to show how serious Iran is about improving relations with the United States, just this week Iran named Hamid Aboutalebi as its ambassador to the United Nations, who Senator Schumer has described as “a major conspirator in the Iranian hostage crisis.”

Moreover, prior to the interim agreement being complete, Secretary Kerry claimed many times: “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Yet, in President Obama’s rush to complete a deal, the interim agreement acquiesced to Iran’s claim of a right to enrich uranium. It says the final agreement would “involve a mutually defined enrichment program,” meaning Iran does not have to dismantle its nuclear program completely. As Senator Menendez, the Chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, recently summarized: Iran “dismantle[s] nothing. We gut the sanctions.”

To make it worse, the Obama Administration is already backtracking on its own deal. Despite an Obama Administration claim upon the signing of the interim agreement that “Iran’s oil exports will remain steady at their current level,” the International Energy Agency found imports of Iranian crude oil increased earlier this year. As Senator Menendez recently assessed, “the Iranians are negotiating in bad faith,” which appears to be obvious to everyone but the Obama administration.

North Korea

On the day of the Prague speech, North Korea, in violation of international rules, tested missile technology specifically designed to target the U.S. homeland. Five days after the missile tests, President Obama requested $95 million in supplemental funding “to provide Heavy Fuel Oil or equivalent to North Korea to support the goals of the Six Party Talks.” North Korea responded with a nuclear weapon test on Memorial Day.

President Obama tried this route again in 2012, announcing he would provide 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea in exchange for it doing what it already has an obligation to do—not test nuclear or long-range missile technology. North Korea responded with a nuclear weapon test in February 2013 and two separate tests of long range missile technology in April and December 2012.

If President Obama’s past practice holds, should Iran fail to complete a final agreement on its nuclear program, it can expect to be rewarded somehow, rather than suffer President Obama’s admonition in Prague that “violations must be punished.”


President Obama committed in Prague to completing an arms reduction treaty with Russia, which he did in New START; and then seeking “further cuts” after that.  He reaffirmed that plan in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate last year, announcing the United States could reduce its “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third,” and he would “seek negotiated cuts with Russia.”

Allegations of substantial Russian noncompliance with—in fact, the wholesale jettisoning of—a particular arms control treaty have recently become public. If this putative violation were known during President Obama’s negotiation of New START, then his claim that “rules must be binding” and that “words must mean something” in fact meant nothing. More troubling, if information of that potential violation was not shared with the Senate during its consideration of New START, then the Senate would have acted without the benefit of full information relevant to its consideration of the treaty that was within the ambit of the Obama administration.

Although it would seem self-evident that parties must adhere to the commitments they have made for arms control to have any meaning and credibility, this is not just an ideological or academically preferable position. It has serious national security consequences. Most notably, the military’s support for New START was predicated entirely on “an assumption … that the Russians in the post-negotiation time period would be compliant with the treaty.” 

In 1985, Congressmen Harry Reid, Les Aspin, and others wrote to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to assert that if compliance issues with arms control agreements completed at the time were not “resolved in a satisfactory manner, it will have serious consequences for the future of the arms control process.” This position is as valid today as it was then.

It is clear President Obama wants to chase yet another arms control agreement with Russia. If he is doing this while Russia is in violation of other arms control commitments, this does violence to the Prague admonition that “rules must be binding.”

Of an equal concern, Russia has said the price for a future agreement is a legally binding agreement limiting U.S. missile defenses. Bearing in mind how President Obama told the Russian President he would have “flexibility” on this score “after my election,” Congress must be vigilant in ensuring he does not make further capitulations to Russia on missile defense as part of an arms reduction agreement. Indeed, it was once the position of the Obama administration that “the issues of missile defense and strategic offensive reductions should be dealt with independently.” President Obama should return to that.

Negotiations with Russia on future nuclear reductions should cease until compliance issues with current agreements are resolved, as Congressman Harry Reid once counseled. Only then should future arms reductions be contemplated, which must be completed in tandem with Russia as part of the treaty process.

The framers specifically required two-thirds of the Senate to ratify treaties; in part, to make it more difficult to enter into them. President Obama would turn this on its head by avoiding the Senate precisely because the New START ratification process was supposedly so arduous.

There is certainly cause for concern on this point, as there is significant talk in the arms control community advising the president to bypass and circumvent the Senate in this effort. For example, in his work for the Global Zero organization, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signed a report advocating on no less than three occasions that the United States implement arms reductions unilaterally—that is, without Senate ratification of a treaty. Congress must ensure Secretary Hagel adheres to the position of his predecessor, Secretary Panetta, that arms reductions will take place in the Obama administration only as a result of an arms control treaty process.

Congress should do its part to ensure U.S. nuclear force levels are maintained and modernized at the New START levels until the Senate ratifies another treaty requiring further reductions—meaning the Senate will be able to pass on the wisdom of those reductions, especially if Russia continues to violate its other arms control commitments. Then, President Obama’s own words that “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something,” will finally be more than just rhetoric.