The Middle East and North Korea: CTBT Hard Cases

Natanz Uranium Enrichment Site (Credit:

2012-10-19 by Richard Weitz

The current nuclear crises involving Iran and North Korea make it unlikely that either of these two countries, or Egypt and Israel, will soon join the CTBT.

Current U.S. priorities are rightly on preventing further North Korean nuclear tests as well as keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran, like Israel, could develop a nuclear weapons capacity even in the absence of testing. The possibility of Egypt’s testing a nuclear weapon is even more remote, but the tense relationship between the current governments in Egypt and Israel make it improbable that Egypt will soon join the NPT.

The international community is currently seeking to entice Iran, Israel and Egypt to attend a Middle East WMD conference, which could seek to deal with the CTBT issue as part of the proposal to make the Middle East a WMD free zone.

But progress in this area is also remote.

The Middle East: General Considerations

Progress is stymied by regional turmoil due to the Arab spring and Iran’s refusal to provide verifiable guarantees that it is not seeking a nuclear weapons capacity.

Egyptian officials, while expressing support for the principles underpinning the CTBT, have indicated they will not ratify the accord until Israel joins the NPT.

At the September 2005 CTBT Entry-Into-Force Conference in New York, the Egyptian delegate, Amr Aboul Atta, reaffirmed his government’s support for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East and other arms control measures. But he added that “we cannot regard the treaty as a secluded legal instrument apart from our common objectives to achieve nuclear disarmament and the universality of non-proliferation. Hence Egypt calls for the achievement of the universality of both the NPT and the CTBT together.” Atta specifically referred to “the importance of Israel’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under Comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” The new Egyptian government has not given any indication of changing this position.

The Israeli government signed the CTBT on September 25, 1996.

Two auxiliary seismic stations and a radionuclide laboratory belonging to the IMS are being established on its territory. In addition, Israeli representatives have helped develop the CTBTO’s on-site inspection mechanism and other treaty procedures.

Israel’s own ratification of the treaty would not present any major security difficulties since Israel is widely considered to have developed an effective nuclear arsenal even in the absence of nuclear weapons testing.

At the Second Entry-into-Force Conference in 2001, Israel’s head delegate expressed strong support for the treaty, but raised concerns about misuse of the verification regime to collect sensitive information concerning Israel’s security, efforts by the other treaty members to exclude Israel from the CTBTO’s Middle East and South Asia (MESA) region, and the non-membership of other Middle Eastern states (such as Iran and Egypt) in the CTBT.

At the Third Entry-into-Force Conference, the Israeli delegate, Itshak Lederman, Senior Director for CTBT and Special Projects at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, again publicly backed the treaty. He explained that “Israel’s signature to the CTBT in September 1996 reflects its long standing policy to bring itself closer, wherever possible, to international norms on nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation.”

In the case of the CTBT, however, Lederman expressed reservations about possible misuse of the on-site inspection mechanism and efforts to exclude Israel from the CTBTO Executive Council, which will influence the procedures for any on-site inspection. Lederman also expressed unease about the commitment of other Middle Eastern governments to comply with the treaty.

Some nuclear industry experts anticipate that, if the United States ratifies the CTBT, the Israeli government will do likewise in the hopes of lifting the trade embargo the Nuclear Suppliers Group has imposed on Israel. The NSG recently lifted a similar ban against India, but Israeli policy makers believe that Israel, unlike India, will need to ratify the CTBT to receive similar treatment.

Until then, Israelis will also hesitate to join the CTBT until they have a better sense of their emerging security environment. In this regard, Iran’s continued progress in developing a nuclear weapons capacity is not helpful.

The Iranian Case

The government of Iran has signed the CTBT but has declined to ratify it.

Iranian officials have complained that, by banning only nuclear explosions, the treaty fails to achieve comprehensive nuclear disarmament. They have also criticized Israel and the United States for failing to ratify the CTBT.

Natanz Uranium Enrichment Site (Credit:
Natanz Uranium Enrichment Site in Iran (Credit:

Citing a constitutional prohibition that disallows the implementation of commitments for treaties the parliament has not ratified, in January 2007 the Iranian government suspended data transmissions from the five IMS monitoring stations on its territory to the International Data Center that monitors potential nuclear explosions.

Over the long run, the decision of the Iraqi government to sign the CTBT on August 19, 2008, more comfortable ratifying and adhering to the treaty. Iraqi forces employed chemical weapons against Iranians during their 1980-88 War, and the two states might naturally seek to balance one another’s unconventional warfare capabilities. (The government of another Arab country, Lebanon, ratified the CTBT in late November 2008.)

Iran’s ratification of the CTBT would help reassure those suspicious of Iran’s nuclear intentions. But major progress in reducing the risk of nuclear war in the Middle East will probably require a change in the foreign policy, and hence the nature, of the Iranian regime.

North Korea

North Korea is the only country that has (twice, in October 2006 and May 2009) tested a nuclear weapon in the past decade.

The new The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) leadership has threatened to conduct more nuclear tests, and experts noted preparations for another test this summer, but thus far Pyongyang has, for unknown reasons, refrained from doing so.

Further DPRK nuclear weapons tests will weaken regional security, challenge the nonproliferation regime, and stimulate those in Japan and South Korea who want their own country to develop nuclear weapons.

The Bush and Obama administrations have declined to pressure North Korea to sign the CTBT. Instead, they have focused their efforts on the Six-Party Talks, which aim for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If the Talks were ever to succeed, they would eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons capacity more directly by constraining its nuclear research and development programs rather than just its nuclear testing.

The fact that Pyongyang’s main foreign ally, China, has yet to ratify the CTBT may also have decreased pressure on the North Korean leadership to sign and ratify the CTBT. North Korea has never sent an official to the biannual Article XIV entry-into-force conferences or displayed any other intent to join the CTBT.

The governments of South Korea and Japan have more explicitly urged Pyongyang to sign and ratify the treaty, but they appear to exert less influence than Washington or Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear policies. (The South Korean government has been a strong supporter of the CTBT, having signed and ratified the treaty at an early opportunity.)

At the 2012 Moscow Nuclear Nonproliferation Conference, Chang Sung Chul, the International Affairs Directorate at the Institute of Disarmament and Peace of the DPRK Foreign Ministry, openly defended his country’s right to test and possess nuclear weapons by arguing that the United States continued to threaten Pyongyang with a nuclear strike.

In fact, the U.S. defense treaties with South Korea and with Japan require the United States to defend these countries from North Korea, but does not obligate the United States to use nuclear weapons, or any particular means, to do so.

Conversely, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against states that do not have nuclear weapons and comply with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. North Korea fails both tests.

Chul indicated he DPRK would only support the CTBT as part of a process of comprehensive and universal nuclear disarmament, which is unlikely to soon occur.

Proponents of the CTBT cited the success of the IMS in detecting the nature and magnitude of the explosion as demonstrating its effectiveness. In October 2006, the IMS easily detected North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear test explosion, which fell below the 1-kiloton threshold, sometimes erroneously described as the lowest assured verification level offered by the CTBT regime.  They warned, however, that the North Korean action, which violated a de facto moratorium against nuclear testing, underscored the need to secure universal CTBT ratification.

Treaty opponents observed that the North Korean test, as well as Pyongyang’s earlier withdrawal from the NPT, showed the limited utility of applying nuclear arms control measures to rogue regimes.