WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama leaves on Wednesday for Prague where he will sign a landmark nuclear treaty with Russia, marking a much-needed diplomatic achievement and a step toward better ties with Moscow.
Obama hopes the agreement committing the two former Cold War foes to new cuts in their nuclear arsenals will help further his goal of a world without atomic weapons.
The signing of the pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday comes two days after Obama unveiled a new U.S. policy restricting the use of atomic weapons. Next week, a 47-country nuclear summit will be held in Washington.
The event at the medieval Prague castle is taking place near the anniversary of a speech he gave in the Czech capital vowing to seek “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Just before the signing, Obama will hold private talks with Medvedev. In the evening, he will dine with 11 heads of state from Eastern and Central Europe.
Obama will press Medvedev in their meeting to support tougher United Nations sanctions against Iran, a message he will also push in Washington during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the April 12-13 nuclear security summit.
Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Iran would likely be the “principal issue” in the Obama-Medvedev meeting.
“It will be important to work out something closer to an agreement with the Russians about the language in the areas on sanctions before negotiating with the Chinese,” he said.
The two largest nuclear powers reached the arms reduction agreement last month after nearly a year of negotiation.
The treaty, a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, would limit operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550, down nearly two-thirds from START I.
Obama has put a priority on trying to “reset” relations with Moscow that hit a post-Cold War low during Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. The treaty could improve the tone of the relationship.
But Washington and Moscow continue to have plenty of differences on issues ranging from Iran to freedom of expression to missile defense.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s threat to withdraw from the START II treaty if U.S. plans for missile defense threatened Russia.
Obama will need ratification of the treaty by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate. Analysts say that will be a challenge but many believed he could secure enough votes from his fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans to pass it.
The push for closer ties with Russia has been greeted warily in former Soviet satellite countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Obama’s dinner on Thursday with the leaders of those nations will aim at reassuring them that Washington is not forsaking its NATO allies in favor of Moscow.
Obama’s new nuclear strategy document, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, forswears the use of atomic weapons against non-nuclear countries, a break with a George W. Bush-era threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a biological or chemical attack.
But the assurance applies only to countries in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so Iran and North Korea would not receive that commitment.
The policy drew criticism from conservatives who said his approach could compromise U.S. national security and disappointed some liberals who wanted the president to go further on arms control.
The goal of a nuclear-free world became a signature foreign policy issue for Obama after last year’s Prague speech. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in part based on that vision.
The agreement with Russia could help advance that agenda.
It will also deliver an important win for the U.S. president on the heels of a major domestic victory he racked up last month with the passage of historic healthcare legislation.
The back-to-back successes could elevate Obama on the world stage after a drop in his popularity had threatened to erode his diplomatic clout.
Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague; editing by Mohammad Zargham