Obama no closer on nuclear test ban ratification

Obama, Russia treatyPresident Barack Obama is expected to claim a major foreign policy success when he signs a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev next week ? but it comes at a cost.

The hard-negotiated pact took so long to conclude it has jeopardized Obama’s chances to achieve another nuclear goal: Senate ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty.

The administration had hoped that success with Russia on a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Control Treaty would give it momentum for winning Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Both treaties must be ratified to go into force, but time constraints mean that the Senate will only consider one of the two before the November midterm elections.

The administration had initially aimed to complete the highly technical treaty with Russia last year, but that proved unrealistic. It now says it intends to send the new START treaty to the Senate for consideration by late April at the earliest. Lawmakers will likely take months to hold hearings and schedule a vote.

That bodes ill for the test ban treaty, which will come second.

“It’s just not going to happen,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. “Not this year.”

For its part, the administration is not ready to be so specific about the time frame. “The president is committed to pursuing ratification” of the test ban treaty, National Security Council spokesman Ben Chang said.

Obama, whose Democratic Party enjoys a majority of 59 votes in the Senate, will need to win over enough Republican senators to reach the necessary two-thirds-majority vote for ratification. While there appears to be strong bipartisan support for the new START treaty, which could be ratified this year, the test ban treaty has been much more contentious.

And it is likely to be more so after November, when Democrats are projected to lose seats.

Negotiated in the 1990s, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty specified 44 nuclear-capable states that must give formal approval before it can take effect. Eight countries besides the United States have yet to ratify the treaty: China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

In 1999, during the Clinton administration, the Senate rejected ratification overwhelmingly, with all but three Republicans voting against it. Opponents believe a test ban would constrain the United States and undermine its technological superiority. They also say it will be difficult to verify whether other countries are conducting secret tests and to ensure that the U.S. arsenal can be maintained and improved without testing.

The administration argues that technological advances, including the capability of computer simulation, have made testing unnecessary and have also made it easier to detect tests in other countries.

Without progress on the test ban ratification, Obama could face difficulty persuading non-nuclear countries to support his other goals, such as strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at a review conference in May. That treaty provides the framework for preventing the spread of nuclear technology and is the basis for imposing sanctions on such countries as Iran and North Korea.

“The test ban treaty has been the litmus test for many non-nuclear weapons states,” says Leonor Tomero of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “It remains a promise that the U.S. needs to fulfill to keep the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty viable.”

Source: The Associated Press.