PRAGUE - The nuclear weapons cuts President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed yesterday would shrink the Cold War superpowers' arsenals to the lowest point since the frightening arms race of the 1960s. But they won't touch the "loose nukes" and suitcase bombs seen as the real menace in today's age of terrorism.
"This ceremony is a testament to the truth that old adversaries can forge new partnerships," Obama declared. "It is just one step on a longer journey."
The warheads covered by the treaty are lethal relics of the Cold War, and even with the planned reductions there will be enough firepower on each side to devastate the world many times over. And of more immediate concern are attempts by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and nations such as Iran and North Korea to acquire or use nuclear weapons.
Obama and Medvedev showed solidarity for a spring showdown with Iran. And, beginning Monday, leaders of 47 countries will gather in Washington in an effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, crack down on illicit nuclear trafficking and lock down vulnerable nuclear materials around the world.
Introduced yesterday with trumpet fanfare, the two grinning presidents sat at an ornate table in Prague's hilltop presidential castle and put their signatures to a landmark successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Nearly a year in the making, the "New START" signaled a bold opening in previously soured U.S.-Russia relations. If ratified by both nations' legislatures, it will shrink the limit of nuclear warheads to 1,550 each over seven years, down about a third from the current 2,200.
Ratification in the U.S. Senate will hardly be automatic, requiring 67 votes in the 100-member chamber during a congressional election year when cooperation can be hard to come by.
Beyond that, urgent international nuclear tasks still face the two leaders. They are trying to forge agreement among themselves and China, France, Britain and Germany on how to tackle Iran's continued defiance of UN demands that it cease enriching uranium. The West insists Tehran seeks to develop nuclear weapons; Tehran says it is after peaceful nuclear power.
At Obama's side, Medvedev made Russia's support for further UN sanctions on Iran clearer than ever. "We cannot turn a blind eye to this," he said.