NPT Problems

If the Obama administration’s intention was to sow confusion in Israel, it definitely succeeded with the Assistant Secretary of State’s remarks calling for  the Jewish State to “declare and relinquish its nuclear arsenal” and become party to a proposed Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — about which Noah wrote yesterday. Two Israeli columnists — both vastly knowledgeable on the subject at hand — have responded to the news today. Bonen Bergman of Israel’s leading paper, Yediot Achronot, raises the red flag:

Is there a connection between Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming meeting with President Obama at the White House and the surprising statement by the American State Department Tuesday? If this is the case, then this is (yet another) worrying harbinger from America’s direction and this time in respect to a particularly sensitive matter.

Aluf Benn of Haaretz raises a white flag:

Israel’s Foreign Ministry rushed to issue calming statements, and justifiably so. The American declaration is nothing new; it has been heard several times before, even during the friendly years of the George W. Bush presidency. President Barack Obama, who has committed in every possible forum to preserve Israel’s security, does not intend to “close Dimona” while Iran threatens to wipe Israel from the map. [Or does he? — ed.]

There’s a problem with this NPT round of debate — actually, a recurring problem with most NPT debates: this is such a complicated issue that most people writing about it aren’t even close to understanding what’s at stake. So while I do understand the urge, I really see no point in debating the Sullivans of the blogosphere (yesterday he asked  “Why should the United States have to pretend that Israel has no nuclear weapons when everybody knows it does?”). Fortunately, the dialogue between proliferation professionals in the U.S. and Israel is usually insulated from blogosphere flame-wars. The people Obama has appointed to handle those matters know how to answer the questions to which Sullivan has no answer.

Adding my two cents, I’d rather quote from a serious study by Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Landau, unlike most pundits, knows what she’s talking about, and in this 2004 paper, she points to one of the NPT’s most disturbing failures: “the gap between continued expectations of the NPT’s role in preventing nuclear proliferation and its real ability to confront emerging international realities in the guise of states seeking nuclear capability widened.” This happened not because the NPT was poorly implemented, but because the NPT is inherently incapable of halting the spread of nuclear proliferation. Landau explains:

The extent of the gap today is captured by the following two statements, the first reminding us of what the US anticipated might happen with regard to nuclear development at the time the treaty was being negotiated, and the second representative of the current sense of disillusionment with the NPT, due to its demonstrated inability to stymie determined proliferators:

“After the NPT, many nations can be expected to take advantage of the terms of the treaty to produce quantities of fissionable material…In this way, various nations will attain a well-developed option on a bomb. A number of nations will be able to detonate a bomb within a year following withdrawal from the treaty; others may even shorten this period.”

US Department of State, Policy Planning Council, May 1968

“The [IAEA report on Iran] is a stunning revelation of how far a country can get in making the bomb while pretending to comply with international inspections.”

Gary Milhollin, as quoted in the New York Times, November 13, 2003

“The assessment from 1968 indicates that at the time of negotiation the expectation was that the NPT would in fact very likely not stop a determined proliferator, and may even enable its proliferation. Thirty-five years later, there are expressions of surprise that the NPT was not able to effect what in fact it was never intended to do.”

Next time anyone wonders why Israel sees no point in signing the NPT, let them start by reading this study.