Astana, Kazakhstan: In a sudden turnaround, the former Soviet republic of Belarus announced Wednesday that it will give up all its weapons-grade uranium _ fresh momentum for anti-proliferation efforts even as the US welcomed Iran’s decision to resume talks on its controversial nuclear program.
On a day of whirlwind diplomacy capped by the Belarus deal, US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Iran’s return to nuclear talks, urged Europe to do more in Afghanistan and insisted that recent WikiLeaks disclosures would have no lasting effect on US relations around the world.
The Belarus decision is a diplomatic victory for President Barack Obama, who has set a goal of securing all the world’s nuclear materials within four years as a centerpiece of his strategy for denying nuclear weapons to terrorists.
Belarus, which had been a holdout, was banned from an April nuclear security summit hosted by Obama, along with Iran and North Korea.
The amount of material Belarus will send to Russia for disposal was not mentioned but is believed to be enough to make at least several nuclear bombs. Belarus, which gained independence in the breakup of the Soviet Union, gave up its Soviet-origin nuclear weapons in 1994, but retained highly enriched uranium stocks for research purposes.
US officials portrayed Belarus’ sudden reversal as a recognition that it would benefit from building a power-generating nuclear reactor that runs on low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make nuclear weapons without further enrichment. Clinton said the US would support Belarus in its pursuit of such a reactor, but details were not released.
With its decision to give up its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium by 2012, Belarus secured an invitation to the next nuclear security summit, to be held in South Korea in two years. Earlier this month the US completed, with British help, an even more ambitious project to secure tons of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium in Kazakhstan.
“We can be confident it will now never fall into the wrong hands,” Clinton said of the newly secured Kazakh nuclear materials.
William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said in an analysis released after the announcement that Belarus is believed to have more than 170 kilograms (374 pounds) of highly enriched uranium fuel, of which approximately 40 kilograms (88 pounds) is enriched to weapons grade. That would be enough to make at least several nuclear bombs.
“The Obama administration scored a major success today,” Potter said.
Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a specialist in international security, praised Belarus.
“Good move. It seems that Belarus wants to be seen in the world as something more than simply another name for Western Russia,” Corgan said.
The announcement of the decision to return the enriched uranium to Russia was made in a joint Belarus-US statement issued after Clinton and foreign minister of Belarus Sergei Martynov met at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in Astana on Wednesday.
Clinton used the occasion of a major pan-European security conference to personally reassure leaders whose governments were the subject of sometimes unflattering mention in the leaked State Department documents that Washington remains a reliable partner. She foresaw, however, more fallout triggered by the embarrassing WikiLeaks episode.
“I anticipate that there will be a lot of questions that people have every right and reason to ask, and we stand ready to discuss them at any time with our counterparts around the world,” she told a news conference after the security meeting _ the first such high-level meeting of the 56-nation group in 11 years.
Asked about Iran’s latest move, Clinton told reporters she is encouraged that Tehran has agreed to return to Geneva for a new round of international talks on its disputed nuclear program.
However, a uranium-exchange agreement that was announced following talks with Iran in October 2009 — but which later unraveled and led to a negotiating impasse — would have to be modified to take into account the fact that Iran has since produced more enriched uranium, Clinton said.
The Iran talks are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. Participating with the US will be Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
“We hope that Iran will enter into these negotiations in the spirit that they are offered,” she added. “It must cease violating international obligations, cease any efforts it is making — and has made in the past — toward achieving nuclear weapons.”
In Tehran on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that a breakthrough in Geneva could be expected only if the talks are held under “equal” conditions and if Iran’s rights are respected.
William J. Burns, the US diplomat who will lead the US delegation, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington that the Obama administration remains committed to a diplomatic solution.
“The door is open to serious negotiation if Iran is prepared to walk through,” the undersecretary of state testified.
The hearing was marked by calls for more pressure on Iran. “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican who will assume the chair of the committee in the next Congress.