Staying in the zone

By Mark Jansson | January 5, 2012

Few things have gone right since the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference called for a 2012 meeting to discuss establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Evidence of nuclear weapons-related research in Iran has continued to mount, putting the world, and particularly Israel, on edge. By now, the enthusiasms of 2010 seem almost quaint. Given the circumstances, it would be tempting for the United States to adopt a less-than-eager attitude toward the 2012 conference, despite being a co-sponsor of the initiative.

But that logic has things exactly backward. The challenges facing the region do not preclude a regional security dialogue; they demand it. While sanctions, embassy stormings, downed reconnaissance drones, sabotage, assassination plots, and International Atomic Energy Agency reports grab headlines and raise concerns that we might be “sleepwalking” into another war in the region, the underlying truth is that establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is more important than ever. This zone would proscribe the stockpiling, use, sale, and transit of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and weapons-related technology across the region. Working toward this goal offers an approach to improving regional security that is not just viable but also preferable to arming states to the teeth in order to bolster deterrence. Without the zone, the Middle East will only continue to become more dangerous.

The conference represents an opportunity to begin a process of cultivating trust among states, to demonstrate America’s commitment to eliminating WMD throughout the Middle East, and to re-assert diplomacy as the leading edge of US foreign policy in the region. So what can the United States do to reframe the WMD-free-zone debate, inject energy back into the conference process, and make US diplomacy credible on this issue? Here’s one idea: Ratify the protocols to the Pelindaba and Rarotonga treaties.

Validating WMD-free zones. The protocols to the Pelindaba and Rarotonga treaties established nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa and the South Pacific respectively, and each has been sitting on the Senate’s treaty docket since May. The treaties call on nuclear weapon states to make legally binding commitments to acknowledge the zones and to refrain from threatening to use nuclear weapons against the states within them. Despite the facts that these protocols have been ratified by every other nuclear weapon state and that the US Defense Department has issued similar guarantees, the ratification process has stalled in the United States Senate. Some senators believe that refraining from using nuclear weapons against states within nuclear-weapon-free zones constitutes accepting “limits” and is therefore symptomatic of a “deeply flawed” policy approach.

But it almost goes without saying that the efficacy of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, like nuclear-weapon-free zones elsewhere, is undermined when nuclear powers disregard efforts by others to work cooperatively in taking the nuclear factor out of their regional security equation. Besides, if regional security is important enough for the United States to tacitly accept Israel’s nuclear opacity and fatalistically discuss future proliferation after an Iranian nuclear breakout, then it should at least warrant the support of efforts by states in other regions who have found another way.

In addition to stemming nuclear expansion in Africa and the South Pacific — an incredibly important step in and of itself — ratifying the Pelindaba and Rarotonga treaties would send a clear message to the international community and to the Middle East that the United States subscribes to a view of regional security that is more comprehensive than enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Re-asserting leadership. Ratification would also help ameliorate doubts that have emerged about the level of US commitment to the conference. An early misstep occurred when two of the three countries the United States initially proposed to host the conference — Canada and the Netherlands — were each a member of NATO, a self-proclaimed “nuclear alliance.” Some Arab countries understandably took this as a sign that the United States was missing the point.

This view was reinforced in August when the top American delegate to a high-level conference-planning meeting, White House WMD czar Gary Samore, backed out at the last minute. Samore claimed to have scheduling conflicts, but confidence in US support for the conference took a blow nonetheless. Then, when the announcement that Finland was selected to host the conference finally came out in October, it was through a terse UN press release issued on a Friday — a non-work day in the Middle East. Again, the conference seemed like more of an afterthought than a priority.

Of course, ratifying the Pelindaba and Rarotonga protocols will not undo all of this damage, but it would show that the United States takes nuclear-weapon-free zones seriously, that the zones deserve high-level attention, and that the United States intends to honor these zones — just as it would a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The United States can use ratification to reclaim leadership on nonproliferation and the Middle East conference.

Making diplomacy credible. We should know by now that the future of nuclear proliferation will not be determined by economic sanctions, debates about compliance, assassinations, or computer viruses designed to hamper a state’s nuclear infrastructure. The future of nuclear proliferation will be determined by political decisions countries take with respect to their security. For that reason, the United States cannot afford to let its concerns about rising nuclear tension between Iran and Israel, well-founded as they may be, blind it to the opportunities afforded by the 2012 conference. Even for skeptics, cynicism about the conference is no excuse for inertia in advance of it.

While a lot of mental energy is regularly committed to the question of how to make nuclear deterrence credible, comparatively little is given to how to make nuclear diplomacy credible. If that were not the case, then perhaps it would have occurred to Senate leaders long ago that they should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the Pelindaba and Rarotonga protocols.

Whatever the cause for delay, ratifying the protocols now would send a timely signal that these zones are viable, that the United States understands the importance of region-wide security initiatives, and that the United States is prepared to lead the 2012 Middle East conference to success.

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