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Ratifications of Test Ban Treaty Still a Nuclear Fantasy

Analysis by Rodney Reynolds

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) - There has been widespread speculation – both inside and outside the United Nations -- that Israel may be toying with the idea of ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), perhaps within the next five years.

But is this in the realm of political reality or nuclear fantasy?

The speculation was triggered following a three-day visit to Israel by Dr Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 20. [P12]  ARABIC | GERMAN | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PERSIAN

Striking a note of optimism about the possible ratification of the treaty by Israel, he told the Jerusalem Post: “It is not a matter of if, but when."

When Israel eventually ratifies the treaty, he predicted that Iran and Egypt may follow suit – also facilitating the long outstanding proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East (NWFZ).

Aaron Tovish, International Director at Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision 2020 Campaign, told IDN “in the Middle East, saying these two countries (Israel and Iran) are closest to ratifying only means that the third is further away”. He said both countries are still “very far away” from ratifying the CTBT. Egypt is only further away, because it wants Israel to "go first.”

"The idea of having them all hold hands, and take the jump together, is attractive, but first you have to get them to hold hands,” said Tovish. Just because it is less ambitious, it doesn’t mean the prospect of a "nuclear-test-free" zone is any more realistic than a NWFZ, he added. 

“In my view, the best prospect for progress – that will ultimately impact the Middle East – lie at the international level, particularly the work being now done in Geneva,” he declared. 

Asked about the speculation, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said: “This is something the Comprehensive Test‑Ban Treaty Organization has been dealing with.”

“I believe you're referring to remarks that were made by the head of the Comprehensive Test‑Ban Treaty Organization, Lassina Zerbo. So, I don't have anything to add to that.”

Of course, said Haq, if there are further ratifications of the Treaty that would be very welcome news. 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has implored all of the countries who have yet to ratify the treaty to do so, so that it can finally enter into effect, he declared. 

In the Jerusalem Post interview, Dr Zerbo was quoted as saying that the implementation of last summer's deal to rein in Iran's nuclear programme – and confirmation from Israeli and international scientists that Tehran can't produce nuclear weapons – would mean "the biggest threat for Israel is gone and over".

Zerbo said the next step should then be to ratify the CTBT, which both Iran and Israel signed in 1996. He called this "a low-hanging fruit," toward the goal of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

"Israel and Iran can make a huge difference for this treaty, and they have nothing to lose ... absolutely nothing," Zerbo said. "Both of them can take leadership and show carte blanche to the world to say we have together decided to ratify the CTBT."

Tariq Rauf, Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IDN that in his view, reports that Israel will ratify the CTBT in the near term are “wildly optimistic.”

He said Prime Minister Netanyahu's reported comments indicated support for the treaty but contained no commitment for an early ratification.

Likewise, ratification of the CTBT by the Majlis in Iran (like Israel, it also has signed the treaty) is unlikely given that the postulated economic and trade benefits flowing from the conclusion and entry into force of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal) have yet to materialize – the Airbus and Boeing aircraft sales deals are held up as no Western banks are ready to enter into commercial transactions involving Iran, fearing US penalties. 

“Israel is unlikely to ratify without Egypt and Iran also doing so -- and Egypt will not ratify unless Israel joins the NPT and gives up its nuclear weapons -- which clearly will not happen.”

He said Dr Zerbo is right to portray an optimistic outlook for ratification by Iran and Israel, since that’s his mandate and job, and he is trying his best to encourage ratification by the remaining five States whose ratification is required (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and USA) -- and also three States whose ratification is also required (North Korea, India, Pakistan) but which have not even signed the CTBT.

“In current circumstances, very unfortunately ratification or signature by any of these eight States is not in the cards in the near term. The CTBT is an important nuclear arms control treaty that should be brought into force as soon as possible,” declared Rauf, a former senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency (2002-2012) dealing with nuclear verification, non-proliferation and disarmament.

In his interview, Dr Zerbo said China won't ratify before the United States, India won't ratify before China, and Pakistan won't ratify before India – which means U.S. action is also crucial.

North Korea, the only country to test nuclear weapons in the 21st century, is least likely of the eight key countries to ratify the CTBT, he said.

The CTBT, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly back in 1996, has still not come into force for one primary reason: eight key countries have either refused to sign or have held back their ratifications.

The three who have not signed – India, North Korea and Pakistan – and the five who have not ratified — the United States, China, Egypt, Iran and Israel – remain non-committal 20 years following the adoption of the treaty.

Currently, there is a voluntary moratoria on testing imposed by many nuclear-armed States. “But moratoria are no substitute for a CTBT in force. The nuclear tests conducted by North Korea are proof of this,” Ban said in remarks to the informal meeting of the General Assembly to observe the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, on September 10, 2015.

According to the Washington-based Arms Control Association even though nuclear weapons have only been used twice in wartime and with terrible consequences, what is often overlooked is the fact that they have been “used” elsewhere – through more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions by at least eight countries since 1945.

These nuclear test explosions have been used to develop new nuclear warhead designs and to demonstrate nuclear weapons capabilities by the world’s nuclear-armed states. The tests, particularly the atmospheric detonations, have negatively affected the lives and health of millions of people around the globe. 

In response, the Association said, ordinary citizens, scientists, legislators, and government leaders have pursued a multi-decade effort to bring into force a global verifiable comprehensive nuclear test ban. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 June 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Meets with CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Lassina Zerbo on June 20, 2016. Credit: Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office (GPO).