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New York Times

The Subject Was Nuclear Weapons
September 24, 2009

With President Obama chairing the session and 13 other leaders around the table, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Thursday intended to strengthen the fraying rules that are supposed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

It was a good-news moment. But also a reminder of the past limits of the Security Council’s will and effectiveness. In defiance of its orders, North Korea has tested two weapons and Iran continues to churn out nuclear fuel.

The resolution commits all member states to a long list of worthy goals, including ratification of the test ban treaty and adoption of stronger national controls on nuclear exports. But some of the countries around the table will have to do a lot more to prove that they mean it.

The resolution commits all United Nations members to enforcing current sanctions on Iran and North Korea. But those measures were seriously watered down — for political and economic reasons — by Russia and China. Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, now says that he might be open to tougher measures on Iran if negotiations fail to bear fruit. China continues to oppose tougher penalties that may be the only chance for constraining Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The resolution set a practical target by urging states to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. The Security Council broke some new ground by warning that any member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that secretly develops a weapon and then withdraws from the treaty — North Korea’s route — will still be held responsible for its violations.

We wish the Security Council had called for states to end rather than minimize the use of highly enriched uranium — a potential bomb fuel — in medical research. And the resolution only encourages, rather than requires, governments to consider whether a state seeking to buy nuclear technology has accepted intrusive United Nations monitoring.

Fortunately, there will be opportunities to fine-tune these goals. A conference on nuclear security is scheduled for next April, and two weeks later the United Nations will review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been weakened by Bush-era neglect and Iranian and North Korean violations.

We applaud Mr. Obama for highlighting the nuclear dangers out there and pressing the world to address them. He still has a tough sell at home. He is far from the votes he needs for the Senate to ratify the test ban treaty. Some 150 countries have ratified it. But the treaty cannot take effect until other major holdouts — including China, India, Pakistan and Israel — also ratify it.

Washington’s failure gives them an all-too-convenient excuse. Mr. Obama will have to work hard to rally broader support.

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