Joshua PollackOh, Calm Down

I’ve been taking a blog break, but this one has my dander up.

The Washington Times created a tempest in a teapot with a very silly front-page “exclusive” today. It’s exclusive, all right. The article distorts a quote from Rose Gottemoeller to the effect of, the U.S. would like to see everyone in the NPT:

“Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States,” Gottemoeller told the meeting, which hopes to agree on an agenda and plan to overhaul the treaty at a review conference next year.

This is not exactly earth-shattering news. It’s the logical entailment of seeking a world without nuclear weapons. “World” would seem to indicate “everyone.” Now, it’s a safe bet that of the four states mentioned by Gottemoeller, North Korea is a lot higher on the list of America’s concerns than Israel. It’s also a safe bet that none of the four states will be joining the NPT anytime soon — rejoining it, in North Korea’s case.

Yet somehow, the Times would have us read these unobjectionable remarks as foreshadowing a demand upon Israel in particular to “come clean” about nuclear weapons, i.e., abandon its stance of “nuclear opacity,” which is designed to avoid unduly provoking the neighbors. Or perhaps they hint at coercing Israel into a Middle East Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone, which is something quite different — and something nobody outside of Riyadh imagines possible. The article makes much hay of the Nixon-Meir understanding of 1969, which Jeff discussed here awhile ago.

Let’s just calm down, already. This is an exercise in free association, not reporting.

Bottom Line

Everyone gets worked up about Israel’s nuclear status because, let’s face it, nuclear weapons are a status thing as much as — or even more than — a security thing. But no one should expect rapid changes. I can’t do better than to quote George Perkovich’s comments at the recent Carnegie Conference:

I also think it’s not constructive to kind of like call out and talk about Israel as having nuclear weapons and that, you know, people ought to come clean and so on. Seems to me the issue is ultimately of disarmament is you take unsafeguarded fissile materials and you try to make it all safeguarded. Whatever form it was in, you try to get it to a form where it’s monitored, it’s accounted for, and it’s clearly not weapons. Israel has unsafeguarded fissile materials. That’s known. We ought to be having a discussion about how you would verify, you know, and monitor all of these stockpiles over time. And it seems to me that can be constructive.

But the most important thing is it seems kind of – and I wouldn’t be defensive about it, but that’s why I’m not in the government – is you invite a regional discussion about this issue. How would we create a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East? And you invite all of the states in the region, and you have the little placards there for Iran, for Saudi Arabia, so on and so forth – and Israel. And I guarantee you, Israel will show up and other seats will be empty. And at that point you say, well, gee, there isn’t that much to talk about. We can’t solve any problems if the states that are needed to solve this problem won’t even come into a room with each other, let alone recognize their existence or have relations with them, let alone have peace treaties. And it seems to me that gets to the nub of the issue, which is you’re not going to get a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in a region where people don’t recognize each other’s right to exist. But I could be wrong.

That, it seems to me, is where the matter stands.

Update: If anybody is still agitated over this, the Jerusalem Post has a chill pill.

Update 2: It’s unfortunate that this sideshow has distracted from the real news, which is the success of the NPT PrepCom. That’s what the story should have been about in the first place.

Further updates: Last week, the Opinionator feature at nytimes.com gave this post of the honor of some attention. Later, Amir Oren of Ha’aretz wrote about this tsunami in a test tube, a tempest in a heavy-water teapot. Now, Avner Cohen and George Perkovich have weighed in with their own take on the story.

Further, further update: Somehow, I missed Laura Rozen’s take on this story.

Comments

  1. Aaron Mannes (History)

    There is a great deal of posturing surrounding US-Israeli relations right now, as two new governments figure each other out during a particularly difficult time. This article was a shot across the bow from some of Israel’s friends. But, as this post eloquently illustrates, it doesn’t appear that the administration was sailing in that direction anyway.

  2. anon

    I agree that WashTimes could have calmed down about Israeli nukes a tad. But, honestly, it is only a flash in the pan compared to the fear-mongering that goes on every single day re. Iran, an NPT member state operating under safeguards.

    I think everyone needs to chill a bit!

  3. PC (History)

    I don’t think the nuclear weapons free world framework has even really changed the equation regarding long-standing U.S. policy regarding Israel and the NPT.

    Some tidbits from a U.S. working paper at last year’s PrepCom:

    The United States continues to support the objectives of the Resolution on the Middle East adopted at the 1995 Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Recognizing the value of the Resolution, the United States will work with states within and outside the region to implement it…

    Iran and Syria are undercutting hopes of achieving NPT universality and dimming the prospects of fulfilling the disarmament objectives expressed in the Preamble and Article VI of the Treaty…

    As emphasized during the last review cycle and the most recent PrepCom, the United States remains committed to the goal of a Middle East free of WMD of all sorts.

    Certainly the tone is different from the 2009 statement since it was focused on proliferation concerns—but in the end, U.S. support for the notion of NPT universality and a WMD-free Middle East were still explicitly mentioned—meaning, the U.S. still supported goals requiring Israel to get rid of its arsenal. Naturally, either of those actually happening would depend on dramatic changes in the political and security environment of the region—something that has also been a U.S. understanding.

    So the question is, when has the United States ever NOT supported, in theory, the very things Eli Lake suggests undermine the the U.S. acceptance of Israel’s peek-a-boo nuclear policy?

  4. ataune (History)

    Perkovitch is right when he says that he might be wrong. Since he is really wrong on this one. If the US convene a conference in the Middle-East with the honest agenda of getting a nuclear free zone there, the only one not attending will be the one having those weappons. Sounds pretty logical to me, except that it runs counter to the US interests right now.

  5. Major Lemon (History)

    I don’t think you can look at arms control or stockpiles in the absence of some rational threat assessment. The Obama administration seems to be burying its head in the sand over this issue. It only wants to kiss up to Iran. Talking about Israeli nukes is a great way to kiss up to Iran.

  6. anon

    Kissing an NPT member state is not so repulsive is it? I look forward to deep French kisses.

  7. Josh (History)

    Strictly speaking, George P. was not quite correct, at least going by past events. Israel and several Arab states did negotiate arms control and disarmament issues in a multilateral format — the ACRS working group — during the years 1992-1995. Israel and Egypt were at loggerheads over how to approach the main issues, and the process broke down and was not resumed.

    Iran was not represented in ACRS.

    In any case, that was probably the high-water mark of multilateral regional diplomacy. Since the second intifada, the willingness of most Arab officials to meet with Israeli counterparts in public settings, never very great, has declined. The Saudi government, for example, was not represented at the recent Annapolis conference, and preferred to launch its 2002 peace initiative at an Arab League summit, as opposed to a venue with Israeli representation.

    In fact, the one interesting and worthwhile detail in the Washington Times story had to do with the Saudi government’s hands-off attitude towards a MENWFZ: they seemed to think it could be declared by Security Council fiat, rather than negotiated among the parties. Alas, the case of Iran reminds us that Security Council fiat has its limits.

    Meanwhile, apropos of nothing, the IAEA is investigating HEU traces found in Egypt. Fascinating stuff. Anybody seen the report in question?

  8. lsxaq

    Why not put the weapons manufacturing entities (in the west,Russia and China
    etc.) into the equation? their concerns of losing billions of dollars maybe the primary obstacle to ME peace.

    Peace initiatives and regional disarmament that correctly identifies all of the stakeholders is less complex.

  9. sdunc (History)

    Either the US Asst Sec of State misspoke in a serious way or the Obama administration is deliberately undermining Israel, again. The latter seems very likely as Obama and Sec of State Clinton have yet to speak out and defend Israel and/or correct their underling who may do well to bow out now. So very typical of them (Obama & Clinton) to hang Israel out to dry. Then again, maybe it’s not such a bad idea for Iran to be reminded that Israel has nukes too.

  10. Josh (History)

    Actually, no. This was an unremarkable formula, compared to previous years. What really stands out is the reference to North Korea, reflecting what has changed on that front.

    Just guessing, but the U.S. interest in creating penalties for withdrawing from the NPT after running afoul of provisions of the Treaty seems related to the North Korean case, and also a way of influencing future Iranian decision-making.

  11. Yossi

    I wonder if there is a hidden agenda behind this.

    After decades of steady Plutonium production the arsenal probably reached its planned size. The recently acquired high current heavy ion accelerator is hinted to produce Tritium, used for boosting. In such a situation the now old over-clocked production reactor is probably kept shutdown most of the time to lengthen its working life. Supporting this hypothesis is the fact the reactor staff works on unrelated subjects like UAV design.

    Maybe some grand move is under preparation? For example letting the IAEA see there is no military nuclear research going on at the site (as officially claimed) then seek NSG approval to buy a new dual-purpose reactor. This is very important in the long run.

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