Friday, May 8, 2009

Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Asking of our friends what we would demand of our enemies

U.S. diplomat, Rose Gottemoeller mentioned recently that the U.S. was committed to the idea of "universal adherence" to the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. We are signatories to the treaty, as are 186 other countries. Nuclear non-proliferation, and even disarmament, has been consistently held U.S. policy for the past couple of generations. Every administration for the past forty years (even the last one) has signed some form of arms limitation treaty.

So why should the Assistant Secretary of State's comments be in the least bit controversial? Why would a treaty that aims to "prohibit the development or transfer of nuclear weapons or related technologies by and to non-weapon holding states" be questioned or challenged? Isn't "universal adherence" to that kind of treaty a pretty good idea? Isn't there a whole lot of trepidation just now over the possible "development of weapons by a non-weapon holding state" —what with Iran and its lack of adherence?

Problem is there are only four nations yet to sign the NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan and Cuba —three stalwart allies of the U.S. and and one stalwart enemy. And guess which three of the four are actually "packing."

As a matter of fact, Gottemoeller's comments came as she was addressing a meeting of signatories to the treaty who wanted to know why the U.S. had made accommodations with India (under the Bush administration) that in effect rewarded it for its non-compliance and non-cooperation over the years. "The United States has long supported universal adherence to the [NPT]. We have urged all states that have not yet joined that treaty to do so," she said. She explained that since its agreement with the U.S., India had made "real progress towards joining the non-proliferation regime."

Most would see this as a fairly rational, and validly strategic, approach to take towards nuclear diplomacy. The international community is confronted with just the behaviors the treaty is in place to confront. Strengthen the treaty and reward adherence —bring together the whole community of nations and more firmly establish the international conventions for acting against the spread of nuclear arms. Indeed, it is this treaty that is often cited as the premise for sanctions against what we like to refer to as the "rogue states" —those whose nuclear designs we would curb.

But in certain circles, rational strategic diplomacy —well, it's just not done.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli nuclear expert Avner Cohen announced, in reaction to the U.S. diplomats remarks, that there is a "deep-seated Israeli anxiety" that Washington would link eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat —presumably as part of negotiations with Tehran —with Israel giving up its own capabilities —a notion completely unthinkable, though Israel officially has no nuclear arsenal.

There's the rub, isn't it? That potential we would punish Iran for —a nuclear weapons capability sequestered from international scrutiny under a guise of sovereign privilege— has been practice for Israel for a very long time. Since the Nixon administration, U.S. policy has been tacit approval of Israel's civilian nuclear technology openly acknowledged —and it's nuclear weapons capacity deliberately vague.

Predictably, there are more on this side of the Atlantic than in Israel itself who have tried to amp Rose Gottemoeller's comment into some horrid betrayal of Israel our trusted and trusting ally. Saner heads in Israel have acknowledged that the call for universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty isn't a unilateral confrontation with their state. Rather it is an exhortation to all in the region. It is about signing the treaty and about abiding by it, too. It is a statement of U.S. support for the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But most importantly, it is a statement made together with the understanding that "such goals can only be achieved," as Gottemoeller herself said, "in the context of progress toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and evidence that Iran is fully implementing and upholding the existing international agreements to which it is a party."

President Obama spoke in Prague recently about the goal of a world —not just a region— free of the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terror. He spoke of it as an American objective, but as a much larger one as well. We will have to lead by example in that effort if we truly wish to see it advance. Ours is the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But along with that leadership expected of us, we might also find ourselves having to ask of our friends what we would demand of our opponents.

I think that's how it works.

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