Russia's August 2008 military confrontation with U.S. ally Georgia is likely to be the final blow to the Kremlin's hopes of winning U.S. approval of a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement this year.
The agreement, signed by both countries in May and submitted to Congress for approval the same month, was already facing a potential uphill battle. Lawmakers were wary of approving the pact because of Moscow's ongoing nuclear and military cooperation with Iran. Plus, the Bush administration submitted the pact so late in the session that it was unlikely to take advantage of a provision that benefits agreements that follow the guidelines of the 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act.
Under those guidelines, an agreement can enter into force if both chambers of Congress fail to pass a disapproval resolution within 90 legislative days from when it is sent to Capitol Hill. Congress may not be in session for enough time to meet the 90-day requirement for the Russian agreement, unless lawmakers agree to a postelection "lame duck" session. Congress adjourned in early August for five weeks for lawmakers to participate in the political party conventions and campaign for re-election. After reconvening briefly, leaders of the House of Representatives have said that they expect to adjourn for the year later this month. Democratic congressional leaders, believing that they will return next year with enhanced majorities in both houses and a member of their party in the White House, see little value in a session after November's presidential and congressional elections.
Even before the conflict between Russia and Georgia, there was already a significant chance that unless Congress took affirmative action to approve the agreement, it would have to be reconsidered next year. On June 24, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation calling for the agreement to be approved only if a number of conditions were met.
In particular, the measure by panel chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida (R-Fla.) would require the president to certify that Russia was preventing the transfer of nuclear, missile, and other highly sensitive goods to Iran, aside from those involved in the construction of a light-water reactor at Bushehr. The measure would also require that Russia take certain steps to enhance liability protections for any U.S. firms involved in nuclear trade with Russia. Moreover, it would give Congress a vote over any "subsequent arrangements" that the administration agreed on with Russia after the agreement went into effect. Such arrangements, for example, could include permission for Russia to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel now in countries such as South Korea.
The conflict between Russia and Georgia, however, appears to further diminish the likelihood that the nuclear cooperation agreement would be approved by Congress this year.
In an Aug. 12 op-ed in the Financial Times, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee, noted that he had co-sponsored legislation supporting the nuclear cooperation agreement (his version came without any conditions). But he wrote, "The fighting in Georgia has erased the possibility of advancing those and other legislative efforts to promote U.S.-Russian partnership in the current Congress. It may derail them permanently if Russia does not reverse course."
Biden's running mate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), offered an even sterner response in an Aug. 26 statement after Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see page 33). Obama said that Russia's move "makes it impossible for Congress to enact the civil nuclear agreement."
The Senate Finance Committee has also recently approved legislation aimed at Russia that would prohibit the United States from entering into a nuclear cooperation agreement with any country assisting Iran's nuclear program or transferring conventional arms and missiles to Iran. In September 2007, the House of Representatives approved similar legislation (see page 43).
In annual reporting on its major weapons transfers to the United Nations, Russia last reported a shipment to Iran in 2003 of three combat aircraft. Russia more recently allegedly exported to Iran Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles, which are weapons systems not subject to the UN arms trade reporting mechanism.