UN official: Israel to ratify nuke test ban treaty within 5 years
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UN official: Israel to ratify nuke test ban treaty within 5 years

Lassina Zerbo meets with PM Netanyahu, makes his case for the Jewish state to pick the 'low-hanging fruit' of the pact

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, in Jerusalem on June 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, in Jerusalem on June 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Year after year, Dr. Lassina Zerbo returns to Israel with the hope of convincing the Jewish state to ratify an international treaty banning nuclear tests, a move the UN nuclear test ban czar claims would have little negative effect on Israel’s security but would be a “serious step forward in showing goodwill on arms control.”

Though his task may seem Sisyphean and occasionally “frustrating,” the head of the United Nation’s Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization sees progress being made, notably in the fact that this year he met personally with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, instead of meeting with a cabinet minister as he has done in the past.

“It’s a step up. The issue has been elevated to [Netanyahu’s] level,” Zerbo told The Times of Israel in the lobby of Tel Aviv’s David InterContinental Hotel on Tuesday.

Netanyahu, for his part, was apparently convinced of the argument, saying this week that Israel would ratify the treaty at some point in the future, depending upon “the regional context and the appropriate timing.”

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, known as the CTBT, was passed by the United Nations in 1996. Though Israel signed the treaty, it — along with seven other countries — has yet to ratify it, keeping the CTBT from being fully implemented.

For the treaty to go into effect, it still needs to be ratified by China, the United States, Egypt, Israel and Iran, and needs to be both signed and ratified by North Korea, India and Pakistan.

In the meantime, using 337 facilities around the world, Zerbo’s organization monitors seismic activity and sound waves on land and underwater, as well as radioactive particles, to detect nuclear detonations anywhere on the planet.

Workers set up a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization facility to monitor hydroacoustics on Socorro Island, Mexico on August 13, 2009. (CTBTO/Flickr)
Workers set up a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization facility to monitor hydroacoustics on Socorro Island, Mexico, on August 13, 2009. (CTBTO/Flickr)

The nuclear test ban treaty is different from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which tries to prevent the spread of atomic weapons, in that the CTBT looks only to ban nuclear detonation tests — think Bikini Atoll — something Israel allegedly hasn’t done since the late 1970s.

In fact, the only country that is believed to have conducted such a test in the past decade is North Korea, according to the CTBTO.

The US military detected the dictatorial regime’s latest test earlier this month, but the CTBTO picked up the country’s last nuclear detonation in January.

“No decent country in the world will carry out a nuclear test explosion — that [practice] is done,” Zerbo said.

For this reason, the CTBTO executive secretary regularly refers to the treaty as “low-hanging fruit,” a measure that the vast majority of countries have agreed to already.

Lots to gain, little to lose

During their 40-minute meeting, he and Netanyahu held a “frank and open discussion” about the nuclear test ban treaty, and the prime minister was “well-informed on the issue,” Zerbo said.

Zerbo was somewhat surprised by how well the conversation went, considering Israel’s sometimes publicly acrimonious relationship with the United Nations.

“I think it went better than anyone expected — though I probably shouldn’t say that,” he said.

Nevertheless, the conversation was a “step up and a step forward” in getting Israel to ratify the treaty, Zerbo said.

Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, walks with Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon on November 6, 2014. (CTBTO/Flickr)
Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (right), walks with Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon on November 6, 2014. (CTBTO/Flickr)

To Zerbo, who is originally from Burkina Faso but now operates out of Vienna, ratifying the treaty would give Israel more information about who is conducting nuclear tests and would make Israel “less isolated” in the international community.

And the cost, he argued, would be minimal. The CTBT would not impede Israel’s ability to carry out laboratory tests or employ its alleged second strike capabilities in the case of an attack.

Zerbo was unwilling to hazard a precise estimation of when Israel would ratify the treaty, but said he expected it would happen “sometime in the next five years.”

He added, “That can mean tomorrow or in five years.”

One of the hang-ups in the past was the lack of monitoring stations in the region, which Israel’s representative to the CTBTO, Merav Zafary-Odiz, has said would keep the treaty from being fully enforceable in the region. A planned facility in Egypt has yet to be built, and an existing detection site in Iran is not connected to the rest of the network.

But in the past year a monitoring station was completed in Turkmenistan, just north of Iran, Zerbo said, which will provide additional coverage for the Middle East.

Plus, he added, the construction of the Egyptian facility was only “a matter of time.”

However, Israel’s main concerns regarding the CTBT have less to do with the treaty itself and more with the “regional context,” Netanyahu said, presumably referring to Iran, which has also not yet ratified the treaty.

Israel would be loath to take the potential first steps toward nuclear non-proliferation if its neighbors were not doing the same.

In the year since Zerbo’s last visit to Israel, the Iran nuclear deal was signed, halting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program at least temporarily.

While he thinks it was a “mistake” that ratifying the CTBT was not a part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — something that should have been a “no-brainer” — he said he understood that throwing too many things into the agreement could have potentially scuttled the whole deal.

Though it was not required by the JCPOA, Zerbo told the Associated Press that Iran should still ratify the treaty as a sign of “good faith or goodwill.”

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, smiles during a meeting with Finland's Foreign Minister Timo Soini in Helsinki on Tuesday May 31, 2016. (Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva via AP)
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting with Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini in Helsinki on May 31, 2016. (Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva via AP)

Since the signing of the JCPOA last year, Zerbo has met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to convince him to get Iran to do so.

Zarif appeared to be in favor of the action and seemed “sincere” in saying so, but Zerbo did not seem convinced that it would happen any time soon.

Rather, he said, it was important to focus on the younger generation of Iranians “who are interested in connecting with the world.”

Zerbo’s work, traveling around the world to convince the remaining eight countries to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, can be “frustrating” and slow-going.

“But you have to love the process,” he said.

Though he loves his work and believes in the CTBT, Zerbo said he would like nothing more than to be out of a job.

Looking out the hotel window toward the Mediterranean Sea, he said that on the day the last country ratifies the nuclear test ban “I will lie down under a palm tree, look up at the sky and enjoy life.”

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