Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Israel, Iran, and Obama’s NPT “Grand Bargain”

A Great Deal for Russia, But Not for China

I have an article up at Asia Times titled US seeks to turn China over Iran sanctions.

I go over the evidence that the United States is trying to shift gears and engage China as a great power with an acknowledged stake in Iran, and not just an amoral, oil-grubbing obstacle to America’s Middle East diplomacy.

I make the case that the Obama administration’s top two China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, don’t have a lot of levers when they go to Beijing this week. The U.S. is intent on rolling back China in the Middle East and elsewhere, and there is little in the way of concrete “strategic reassurance” (Mr. Steinberg’s coinage describing the current U.S. policy) that we have to offer.

That doesn’t mean that China won’t look at the disposition of forces and abstain or even vote “aye” or “yea” or “yippy-ki-yay m***” in the Security Council; it means whatever they do, they won’t be happy about getting pushed to the wall on Iran and they’ll be thinking about short-and-long-term countermeasures.

One of the things that the Chinese will be thinking about is the NPT Reform Conference in New York City in May 2010.

This extremely boring-sounding conference is actually the linchpin of President Obama’s strategy to re-order the international security order on the basis of a multilateralized commitment by the developed world to forestall proliferation of nuclear weapons technology—instead of building military and diplomatic coalitions around America’s need to assert full-spectrum dominance over its enemies and competitors.

I think the correct frame to view America’s rather over-the-top campaign to bring Iran to heel through sanctions is not “mad mullahs must not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons and bully our buddies in Middle East sandbox”.

Instead, neutralizing Iran should be viewed in the context of the Obama’s administrations efforts to universalize its non-proliferation doctrine by dealing with the most aggravating and problematic proliferation issue.

Not Iran.

Israel.

The presence of Israel at the forefront of the effort to impose “crippling” sanctions on Iran is something of an anomaly.

Israel is itself a proliferation bad boy. It isn’t a member of the NPT; it has a highly destabilizing undeclared arsenal of over 200 nuclear weapons; and it proliferated in a major way to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Arab countries have routinely deplored the West’s double standard in ignoring Israel’s existing nuclear weapons transgressions while fixating on Iran’s unproved and unprovable intentions.

It would appear to be paradoxical for the Obama administration—which makes a fetish out of deep thinking and forward planning—to send Israel around the world to carry the flag for Iran sanctions.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, just concluded a trip to the United States to lobby for sanctions.

Benjamin Netanyahu paid a high-profile visit to Russia to bargain for its UNSC vote.

An Israeli delegation just returned from beating the sanctions drum in China.

The action is not limited to permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Israeli delegations are also lobbying non-permanent members of the Security Council—countries that can’t veto a sanctions resolution but can contribute to the nine-vote yes tally needed to pass it—far from Israel’s conventional sphere of influence and interest.

Countries like Brazil, Gabon, and Uganda.

To me, all this activity makes sense only in terms of the Obama administration’s overarching desire to reshape the global security regime around non-proliferation.

And I think those plans include an as yet publicly undisclosed role for Israel.

President Obama’s claim to global moral and geopolitical leadership rests in considerable part on his championing of the cause of nuclear disarmament—the primary justification for his Nobel Peace Prize.

The Obama administration’s ambitions for a “grand bargain” reconciling nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear states within the framework of a new and improved NPT are a matter of detailed public record.

They involve universal participation in a stringent NPT regime achieved by a full toolbox of carrots and sticks: a de facto ban on domestic enrichment by nuclear have-nots enabled by an internationalized LEU fuel supply facility in Russia and universal adoption of the adversarial Model Additional Protocol; a new START treaty with Russia, a U.S. commitment to a denuclearized security regime by promulgation of a new, no-nukes Nuclear Posture Review, and negotiation of a ban on creation of new fissile material to deliver on the forgotten promise of disarmament by the nuclear weapons states under the NPT; and U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The whole Obama approach, with its core elements of a new START treaty and Russian hosting of the LEU facility, seems designed to welcome Russia—the most significant player in nuclear weapons outside of the United States—into the world security-regime fold as a key partner instead of an antagonist.

Beating on Iran for its unpopular nuclear program at Washington’s behest would seem to be a small price to pay for the opportunity for Moscow to join Obama’s non-proliferation team, end the U.S. campaign to isolate and harass it geopolitically, and perhaps gain acceptance of the “near-beyond” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence.

It’s not surprising that Moscow is interested in playing ball with Washington as a result.

Despite all these interlocking and complementary initiatives, it is difficult to see how the nuclear-weapon lions will lie down with the nukeless lambs unless the U.S. also has plans to bring Israel into a new non-proliferation regime, perhaps as part of an India-style deal that allows it to declare and keep its weapons.

In the past, Israeli participation in any international nuclear arms control regime was considered to be impossible.

Israel has not declared its nuclear arsenal and is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which, as recently as May 2009, it derided as totally ineffectual.

However, the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran in early 2009 and a contemporaneous call for all nations—with Israel explicitly named—to sign the NPT treaty elicited great dismay in Israel.

Israel faced the possibility that, in the case of a U.S. nuclear deal and rapprochement with Tehran, Israel would be isolated as the nuclear rogue state and would have to negotiate the status of its arsenal from a position of weakness.

This apparently inspired a sea change in Israeli attitudes toward the NPT regime.

For whatever reason, the U.S. outreach to Iran failed to bear fruit and Israel seems to have made the intricate adjustments necessary to replace Iran as a key supporting element in President Obama’s global disarmament strategy.

By a remarkable coincidence, the crucial event may have been revealed just as the West presented its doomed nuclear fuel swap proposal in Geneva on October 1, 2009:

On October 2, 2009, Eli Lake reported in the Washington Times that President Obama had, at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, agreed to reaffirm the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward the Israeli nuclear arsenal that has prevailed since the Nixon administration: that the United States would passively accept Israel’s nuclear weapons status as long as Israel did not declare or test a device.”

In the context of President Obama’s overarching commitment to the NPT, there was immediate speculation as to the possible quid pro quo he demanded for continuing the charade of ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons status.

Lake quoted David Albright of ISIS as remarking:

"One hopes that the price for such concessions is Israeli agreement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and an acceptance of the long-term goal of a Middle East weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone," he said.

The “long term goal” is described in Israel as the “long corridor”:

Israel has declared it will officially eschew nuclear weapons if the nations of the Middle East sign peace treaties acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, and the region is devoid of all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons, and missile stockpiles have been decreased.

That, of course, brings us to Iran and its enrichment program.

It is difficult to understand Israel’s high-profile involvement in the Iran sanctions negotiations unless Israel has come to an understanding with the United States concerning entry into the non-proliferation regime and has been charged with communicating assurances to the various skeptical nations that it is poised to become an NPT good citizen if the Iran problem is dealt with in a satisfactory way.

If President Obama hopes to bring Israel to the NPT Review party in New York City in May 2010, it looks like he’s going to need Iran’s scalp on his belt—Iran convincingly isolated and ostracized by the family of nations because of its insistence on its enrichment rights.

But he also might just be bringing an Iran mess.

There are signs that the NPT Review Conference in New York in May 2010 is eerily recapitulating the debacle at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009.

It appears the Obama administration will enter the conference with only a fraction of the national commitments needed to put it in the moral and diplomatic driver’s seat and impose the deal it made with a small circle of great powers on the hundred-plus developing nations.

Cooperation with Russia on START and establishment of the internationalized LEU fuel facility are well advanced.

However, Laura Rozen reports that the Russian leadership is unwilling to pull the trigger and announce the conclusion of an agreement.

I think the Russians understand that, without the START treaty, President Obama risks going into the NPT conference virtually empty-handed.

America’s own ratification of the crucial Model Additional Protocol for IAEA safeguards is gutted by an enormous national security exemption; thanks to DoD resistance, the Nuclear Posture Review posture calls for continued improvement of the US nuclear arsenal instead of its elimination; and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are distant dreams, given the implacable and united hostility of the emboldened Republicans in Congress.

In the absence of significant progress in the United States, a new START treaty and a startling, new public statement by Israel concerning its willingness to enter into the non-proliferation regime are the best hopes for the Obama administration to go into the NPT review conference with some momentum.

I think the Russians realize they have this leverage and are making life miserable for the U.S. negotiators. That includes dancing around on the issue of Iran sanctions which, if my theory holds, has been sold to Moscow by the U.S. and Israel as the linchpin of a new non-proliferation regime with Russia near its center.

China is really the odd man out in this scenario, especially if a non-proliferation united front including Israel, Russia, and the Arab States orchestrated by the United States trumps China’s preferred tactic--economic and diplomatic engagement--as the preferred method for dealing with Tehran.

China may decide to take a leaf from its Copenhagen playbook and act as the spoiler at the NPT conference in alliance with elements in the developing world that will be shut out of the nuclear fuel cycle by the strict new NPT regime envisioned by the United States.

Or, as the U.S. apparently hopes, Beijing will decide to stick to its knitting in Greater China, while leaving the rest of the world as spheres of influence for the United States, Russia, India, and Brazil.

Grand bargain, indeed.

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derekt said...

Thanks for this helpful post. As you say, Israel is the key. But, as in every matter affecting the, they pose pre-sonditions. Here, they want to see Iran giving up nuclear weapons projects before they will even consider what they might do.

If Obama were to be really serious, he would put the heat on Israel: "If you don't sign up to the NPT, you'll get no more aid from the US", or something like that. China won't even need asking if he does that. And Iran will be the one left exposed.

But has Obama got the guts?

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