By Lucy-Claire Saunders
UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 9 (Xinhua) -- Even if Russia and the United States agreed next month on an arms treaty, it might be at least another six months away from ratification -- a process in the U.S. legislature that could jeopardize the Obama administration's aggressive disarmament agenda, a veteran U.S. arms control negotiator told Xinhua on Tuesday.
As Democrats do not have a decisive majority in the U.S. Senate, Republicans have the opportunity to hold the successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) hostage to future obligations or conditions, said Ambassador Thomas Graham, who chairs the Bipartisan Security Group, a coalition of Republican and Democratic experts with experience in diplomacy, law, intelligence and military affairs.
It is possible that those conditions would make further reductions in U.S. nuclear arsenal more difficult, and/or, make Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) out of reach, said Graham.
"The (START) ratification process could prove to be very difficult, very complicated and could last a long time," he said. "The Republican senators "could say, 'You don't give us the amendments we want, and we'll block the (START) treaty.'"
Graham is a former senior U.S. diplomat, who has been involved in every major arms control agreement of the last 30 years, including the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) Treaties, START, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the CTBT.
Graham told Xinhua during a phone interview that once Russia and the U.S. come to an agreement, possibly in March, the text will then be sent to the U.S. Senate for ratification, where it will need a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.
There are 57 Democrats in the Senate, plus two independents, who will probably vote in favor of the START agreement. Being eight votes short, Democrats will have to find at least eight Republicans who would be willing to support the START treaty.
"The administration will find those eight votes, and probably more than that, but there may be attempts to have understandings, reservations, and related obligations attached the resolution of ratification," said Graham.
The whole process could take up to six months, just in time for midterm elections when senators tend to be less flexible, Graham added. The timing could make it that much harder for Obama to ratify the CTBT and give the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) more authority and resources to tighten the NPT regime.
THAT IS, IF START EVEN MAKES IT TO CONGRESS ..
Already, arms talks between Russia and the U.S. have taken longer than expected, said Graham. Negotiators failed to reach a deal before Dec. 5, START's expiration date, and they missed a second self-imposed deadline before the end of 2009 to resolve various areas of disagreement.
U.S. negotiators have described the remaining issues as insubstantial. However, Interfax news agency recently quoted Russian armed forces chief of staff Nikolai Makarov as saying the development and establishment of the U.S. sea- and land-based missile interceptors in Europe is directed against the Russian Federation -- a development that seems to be straining good relations between the two countries.
Last week, the White House announced that Romania had agreed to host a Standard Missile-3 interceptor as part of the Obama's administration's new missile defense plan. The shorter range tactical systems are designed to address the threat from medium- range missiles from Iran, said the White House.
But Russia appears to be concerned that the Romanian defense shield could be used as base for something more capable later. As Graham noted, the START negotiations appeared to be on track but disagreements over issues like missile defense always have the potential to derail or hamper talks.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
As the START talks drag on, some experts have expressed concern that it could make it harder for the U.S. to convince the rest of the world to strengthen the NPT at the upcoming review conference in May.
"A failure to get a START agreement would be a very serious blow to any idea that there is a credible commitment to zero nuclear weapons," former U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins told Agence France-Presse.
But besides gaining political leverage, says Graham, the U.S.'s success with Russia over an arms control deal will not directly affect the international nuclear disarmament agenda.
"I hope I don't sound overly negative but I don't think this phase of START will have much effect on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," he said. "It's a modest reduction and it really doesn't get at the real NPT issues, which is partly the test ban and really low levels of nuclear weapons down into the hundreds."
What would be groundbreaking is if the U.S. ratified the CTBT, which rests on the agreement that non-nuclear states will not pursue atomic weapons as long as nuclear states halt testing their own.
"It is the principle quid for the quo," said Graham. "I think we're running out of time in terms of having a strong NPT and there's nothing more important than that for us."