Last night, President Obama signed into law a new Iran sanctions bill that will put into place the harshest sanctions ever lodged against Iran. While acting tough on Iran has been the one issue that has seemingly united Republicans and Democrats, President Obama also took time to note the importance of the New START treaty — something that Republicans in the Senate have yet to broadly support — to the effort to isolate Iran. The President started off his short address saying:
As President, one of my highest national security priorities is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. That’s why my administration has aggressively pursued a comprehensive agenda of non-proliferation and nuclear security. Leading by example, we agreed with Russia to reduce our nuclear arsenals through the New START Treaty — — and I’ve urged the Senate to move forward with ratification this year. And with allies and partners, we’ve strengthened the global non-proliferation regime, including the cornerstone of our efforts — the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Now, in the entire world, there is only one signatory to the NPT — only one — that has been unable to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. One nation. And that nation is Iran.
Making the link between START, Iran sanctions, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is essential and is one that the right frequently overlook and fail to grasp. The US could pass unilateral sanctions until we are blue in the face and still fail to isolate Iran, as we have already largely sanctioned ourselves out of relevance. Since Iran is not dependent on trade with the United States, it is impossible for the US to unilaterally isolate Iran.
The key to isolating Iran, is for others to do more. The framework for which the United States can organize strong broad-based international sanctions against Iran is through the non-proliferation regime, which is codififed by the NPT. The fact is that to isolate and punish Iran for its violations of the NPT there has to be strong international support for the NPT. Yet under the Bush administration the non-proliferation regime greatly frayed, as non-nuclear states increasingly questioned (and for good reason) US commitment to the treaty. As a result, the 2005 NPT review conference (which happens once every five years) ended in abysmal failure, leading many to fear that the fledgling regime would collapse.
This is where START comes in. The non-proliferation regime rests on a grand bargain where nuclear-armed states agree to work to reduce and abolish their nuclear stockpiles, while non-nuclear states agree not to pursue nuclear weapons. At the 2010 review conference, the New START treaty — by reaffirming US commitment to the grand bargain — was crucial to bolster the non-proliferation regime and in getting 189 signatures to recommit to the treaty. Without a new START treaty this would not have happened.
But for the START treaty to take effect it has to be ratified by a bipartisan supermajority of 67 Senators. And many on the Republican side are positioning themselves to oppose the treaty. Yet should START fail to be ratified, our ability to tighten international pressure on Iran would diminish, as START’s failure would lead other non-nuclear states to question what is the point of punishing a country like Iran for violating the NPT, when the United States itself is failing to adhere to its treaty commitments. Without a strong international commitment to the NPT, the major mechanism used to isolate Iran would be gone.