MESOP TODAYS OPINION : Russia & the nuclear-free zone

3 June 2015 – Al Monitor – Judging from public statements from Moscow, the Russian government’s principal disappointment following the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York (April 27-May 22) was its failure to produce a statement calling for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. But is Russia truly pursuing this goal? Its policies suggest otherwise.During the closing session of the conference, the head of Russia’s delegation, Mikhail Ulyanov, complained that “the adoption of a final document including a section on the Middle East turned out to be impossible because of the objections of three states.” To avoid any uncertainty regarding their identity or Moscow’s goals, Russia’s Foreign Ministry followed up with a statement expressing regret that “the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada” blocked language on “the implementation of the 1995 resolution on the creation of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, as well as related delivery vehicles in the Middle East.”

Moscow’s public position on a nuclear-free Middle East is hardly new — today’s Russia is more or less following a Soviet policy first outlined in 1958, nearly six decades ago. Needless to say, the Middle East has changed somewhat since that time, as have the global distribution of nuclear weapons, the structure of the international system and Moscow’s place in it.

One of the most significant changes in the Middle East is Israel’s presumptive nuclear arsenal — something that puts a nuclear-free zone out of reach for the foreseeable future. After all, it is often much easier to persuade governments to give up what they don’t have than what they do. Thus, as difficult as it has been to approach a nuclear agreement with Iran, which does not yet have a nuclear weapon, few have similar aspirations for North Korea, which appears to have several. Taking into account that Russian arms control and nonproliferation experts are among the best in the world, and that Russian Foreign Ministry diplomats have decades of experience working on these issues, they should be well aware of this practical reality. As a result, they should also be well aware that persuading Israel to give away something it doesn’t admit to having and therefore can’t even discuss is very unlikely. So is convincing the United States and others to join an effort to compel Israel. With this in mind, most observers have interpreted Moscow’s position on a nuclear-free Middle East as diplomatic posturing. In fairness, Russia’s government has taken significant steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, including support for several UN Security Council resolutions and active participation in international negotiations. Moreover, Moscow did not always do so — in the 1990s, Russia often dismissed US assertions that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon. Russia increased its support for efforts to stop Iran’s program following disclosure of nuclear sites that Tehran was concealing from the International Atomic Energy Agency (and from Moscow).

Though Russia’s government accepted that Iran could be working toward a nuclear weapon, its Russian leaders considered this much less threatening than the United States, many European governments, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others. This threat assessment matters because it also shapes Moscow’s views of the possible consequences of what some in the United States and Europe are calling a “bad deal” with Iran — a deal that fails to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and leads others in the region to acquire nuclear capabilities, too.

From this perspective, Saudi Arabia is central, in that it has considerable financial resources and is the dominant military power among the Gulf Cooperation Council members, which consider a nuclear Iran a significant threat — particularly if a future nuclear capability deters the United States from coming to their assistance in a conventional conflict or a crisis situation. This has fueled widespread discussion of the possibility that Riyadh may ask Pakistan to provide nuclear technology or weapons in return for Saudi Arabia’s long-term financial support for Pakistan’s nuclear program.Notably, Russia’s official international media outlet, Sputnik, seems to be trying to discount this theory, which could threaten an agreement if it leads Washington or others to adopt tougher negotiating positions that Tehran might not accept. In mid-May, Sputnik posted an online report quoting an anonymous “Pakistani diplomatic source” as saying that “there is no question of transferring any weapon or scientific technology to any country. Our nuclear assets are for deterrence.” To avoid any doubt, Sputnik titled the article “Reports of Pakistan Mulling Sale of Nukes to Saudis Groundless — Source.” On the very same day, Russia Today, Moscow’s international broadcaster, similarly called this idea into question by citing a former US official and “speculation” by a former head of Israeli military intelligence and then using an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies to rebut them.

What is especially interesting, however, is Sputnik’s dramatically varied perspectives on the proliferation risks posed by Pakistan’s nuclear program. Just five days after reporting that Pakistan won’t give Saudi Arabia any nuclear help, the site posted a story — based entirely on claims by the Islamic State (IS) and quotations from a single British photojournalist — that the IS could buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan within 12 months. Five days after that, Sputnik wanted its readers to know that (again unnamed) diplomatic sources in Pakistan rejected as an “insult” the conclusions of a report produced by the US Congress that expressed concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear materials. The combination of these rather mixed messages with the very thin sourcing in all three articles strongly suggests their political intent — to dismiss the idea of a Pakistani-Saudi nuclear axis, to emphasize the dangers posed by IS and to criticize the US Congress.

Given Sputnik’s apparent effort to discourage its readers from thinking that Saudi Arabia may have a “Pakistan option,” it is worth mentioning that Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy firm Rosatom has been exploring providing a nuclear power plant to the country for some time. Indeed, in June 2014, Rosatom’s deputy chief executive for international affairs visited Saudi Arabia and reportedly left with a draft nuclear cooperation agreement. While Saudi Arabia has since signed a nuclear agreement with South Korea and does not appear to have finalized one with Russia, the commercial talks could well have provided Moscow with a narrow window into Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear sector. Russia may well be hedging its bet on the Iran deal and looking for ways to monitor Riyadh’s progress. Read more: