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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Keep the Middle East Nuclear Test Free
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Daryl G. Kimball

Proliferation prevention requires a comprehensive approach, involving multiple barriers against the acquisition and further development of nuclear weapons. Nowhere is this more apparent and necessary than the Middle East, which already has one undeclared nuclear-armed state—Israel—and another state with the capacity to build nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so—Iran.

As top diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 states (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) continue to negotiate a comprehensive solution to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful, their formula must address a wide range of potential proliferation pathways. Appropriately, most attention has been focused on significantly scaling back Tehran’s capacity to produce bomb material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) and improving the capacity of the international community to detect and respond to any effort by Iran to build nuclear weapons.

But if the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is to be truly comprehensive, Iran’s leaders should also be called on and should agree to promptly ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear test explosions and has established a highly sensitive global monitoring system to detect and deter violations. Without the option to conduct nuclear explosive tests, Iran could not gain the necessary confidence in the advanced, smaller-warhead designs it would need for use on ballistic missiles.

In the mid-1990s, Iran was an active and constructive participant in multilateral CTBT negotiations. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati put forward a compromise draft text that helped bridge differences at a key juncture in the talks. On Sept. 24, 1996, Iran became one of the original signatories to the treaty.

Today, Iranian ratification of the treaty, as well as a decision to allow the transmittal of data from international monitoring stations on its territory to the International Data Center in Vienna, would help reduce concerns about Tehran’s nuclear intentions and make it far more difficult for Iran to build a sophisticated nuclear arsenal.

On the other hand, the continued failure by Iran to ratify the CTBT would raise further questions about the nature of its sensitive nuclear activities, which will likely remain under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran’s talks with the P5+1 are due to conclude. Iran’s leaders should want to ratify the CTBT to help distinguish their country from North Korea, which for now is the only state that openly threatens to conduct additional nuclear tests.

States not involved in the Iran nuclear talks need to reinforce the importance of the CTBT to Tehran, which is the current chair of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Leaders of NAM states need to do their part by calling on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to ratify the treaty. They can start at this month’s meeting at the United Nations of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Iran is one of eight key holdout states that must ratify the treaty to trigger its entry into force. Action by other countries on that list, which includes China, Egypt, Israel, and the United States, is overdue.

U.S. leadership on the CTBT is critical. The path to approval by the U.S. Senate is a tough climb, but is achievable with a major push. President Barack Obama has made several strong statements of support, but the White House has done little beyond that to begin the ascent.

Once the CTBT is in force, established nuclear-weapon states, including China and Russia, would not be able to proof-test new nuclear warhead designs, and on-site inspections would be available to enforce compliance.

With no shortage of conflict and hostility in the Middle East, ratification of the CTBT by key states in the region—Egypt, Iran, and Israel—could be a game changer. It would accelerate CTBT entry into force and help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the long-sought goal of Egypt, other Arab states, and Iran.

Like Iran, Israel has signed but has not yet ratified the CTBT. Israeli ratification would bring that country closer to the nuclear nonproliferation mainstream and put pressure on other states in the region to follow suit.

Following a mid-March visit to Jerusalem by Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, sources close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told The Times of Israel that Israel considers the CTBT to be “very significant,” in part because of its extremely robust, global nuclear test monitoring system. The report said Netanyahu is “proud” to have signed it and “has never had a problem with the CTBT.”

Leaders in Iran, Israel, and other key countries should all take positive action on the CTBT. Doing so is clearly in their respective national interests and would strengthen the beleaguered global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a critical time. ACT

Posted: April 30, 2014