President Obama, in his response so far to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is sending a clear message to Iran to never negotiate away its right to develop and deploy nuclear weapons as Ukraine did in 1994.
Ukraine, it should be remembered, was the third largest nuclear power in the world when it gained independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union. Ukraine inherited as its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal two thousand nuclear warheads and the means to deliver those warheads, both missiles and heavy bombers. That was a larger nuclear arsenal than was held by Great Britain, France, and China combined.
In 1994 Ukraine agreed under international pressure to divest itself of all nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. In a “Memorandum on Security Assurances” signed in Budapest on December 5, 1994, by U.S. President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and British Prime Minister John Major, those leaders committed their nations to:
1. “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”,2. “reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”, and3. “refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind”.
If Ukraine had resisted international pressure to surrender its nuclear weapons, and instead retained its 2,000 nuclear warheads, or any significant portion of them, does anyone believe Russia would have invaded any part of Ukraine? But having relied on the “security assurances” of the great powers, a disarmed Ukraine now finds those assurances literally not worth the paper on which they were written.
The lesson for Iran and other aspiring nuclear powers could not be clearer. Never trust the commitments of the great powers. Resist international pressure to give up your nuclear weapons.
The United States and the United Kingdom, as signatories to the agreement by which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons, have a special obligation to see its terms observed and the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine protected. It’s not too late to fulfill that obligation, though intent of the signatory nations to do so is not yet apparent.
I strongly oppose and regret the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran or any other country. But I understand why countries choose to acquire them in a world without law and unwilling to act collectively against aggressors.