President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have agreed to move ahead with a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between their countries, but a senior Department of State official said the Obama administration may need some time to address congressional concerns about the pact.
Speaking April 7 at a luncheon session of the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, said the process of consulting with lawmakers will be "slow and, I think, deliberate" because of "the difficult issues that confront the agreement on Capitol Hill." Nevertheless, she said, "I hope that this is an agreement that can be fairly quickly brought before the Congress again."
In May 2008, President George W. Bush submitted the agreement to Congress but withdrew it three months later in the wake of Russia's military action in Georgia. Even before the clash with Georgia, the pact was facing resistance from some influential members of Congress. The main focus of their concern was Russia's relationship with Iran, particularly with regard to Tehran's nuclear program.
Last year, the two top members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee-Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)-introduced legislation that would have made the issuance of licenses for U.S. nuclear exports to Russia contingent on a presidential certification that Russia was not providing Iran with assistance relevant to nuclear or certain other types of weapons. The president also would have had to certify that Russia was "fully and completely" supporting U.S. efforts to impose "effective" international sanctions on Iran.
At the April 7 luncheon, Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, said such conditions were "absolutely irrelevant" to the agreement. If the agreement serves U.S. interests, then it should be supported, he said.
Supporters of the pact have said it would solidify support for U.S. work on nonproliferation issues, including efforts to convince Iran to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. "Virtually every nuclear danger America faces will be made more dangerous if Congress rejects [the agreement]," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) argued in The New York Times last May. (See ACT, June 2008.) Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Nunn, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, drafted legislation that led to many existing U.S.-Russian nonproliferation programs.
Gottemoeller's comments "directly acknowledged the deep problems" that members of Congress have with the agreement, a Democratic congressional staffer said in an April 20 e-mail. A Republican staffer said April 21 that he had not yet seen any signal from the administration that it was preparing to resubmit the pact.
After their meeting in London April 1, Obama and Medvedev issued a wide-ranging statement on U.S.-Russian relations. According to the statement, the two leaders "will work to bring [the cooperation agreement] into force."
Under U.S. nuclear export law, Congress does not have to vote to approve the agreement. Once it is submitted, the pact could enter into force after 90 days of so-called continuous session unless lawmakers vote to disapprove it. Congress also could vote to approve it, but that approval could come with conditions, as Berman and Ros-Lehtinen proposed in their bill last year.