As the United States touts Thursday's rare, if small diplomatic breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran, one key component of the Obama administration's nuclear arms-control strategy remains in limbo.
Administration officials have been promising again and again to work toward ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 1996 agreement that prohibits any nuclear-weapons testing and has been ratified by 150 countries, but not the United States. Inside the administration, there is no clear schedule and some concerns about how and when to make the push for Senate ratification.
"The second major arms control objective of the Obama administration is the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty," Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller said in an August speech, affirming pledges from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get the treaty ratified.
"There is no step that we could take that would more effectively restore our moral leadership and improve our ability to reenergize the international nonproliferation consensus than to ratify the CTBT."
America's allies see the CTBT as a litmus test of America's commitment to participate concretely in the arms-control agenda it espouses. While cognizant of the challenges Obama faces on the issue domestically, they nonetheless will judge his success or failure on the issue as an indicator of whether the administration can actually implement its progressive rhetoric.
But administration officials are acutely aware of the 1999 failure to ratify the treaty in the Senate, an ordeal that stands as a cautionary tale about approaching the CTBT without a new strategy. Moreover, if ratification seems unlikely, they could abandon the push in the near term.
"We must construct a new paradigm from the debate over this same issue in 1999. Simply put, the world has changed," Gottemoeller said.
Many Republicans in the Senate, however, don't think the basis for their opposition to CTBT has gone away and are gearing up to fight a new ratification initiative.
"All of those reasons still pertain, and then some," Senate Minority Leader Jon Kyl, R-AZ, who led the successful opposition to ratification in 1999, told The Cable.
"I will lead the charge against it and I will do everything in my power to see that it is defeated," he told Congressional Quarterly.
A senior GOP Senate aide spelled out Republicans' objections and their argument going forward.
"The Republicans will say that the risks are you can't verify the agreement, countries will be cheating, and at the end of the day, we may need to test to make sure our systems are viable," he said.
They also plan to argue that the CTBT is simply not likely to actually convince countries with nuclear aspirations to forego their plans, as the administration claims.
"If you really believe that Iran is a nuclear tipping point, what's more likely to solve that problem? Is it the U.S. ratifying CTBT or is it the U.S. finding some clever way to get Russia and China to help us deal with that problem?" the GOP aide said, "It's like a drunk trying to find their keys under the streetlamp because the light is better there."
"We're only going to do it when we are going to win"
Timing is a critical factor in the administration's push for ratification. Multiple senior officials told The Cable that Senate ratification would probably be sought after the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, which begins next April.
The White House wants to go to the NPT conference promising to complete CTBT ratification and doesn't want to risk an embarrassing failure right before the meeting. The problem is, after the conference, the congressional time window is small before members start gearing up for the 2010 election season and put these kinds of strategic issues on the backburner.
The schedule for the CTBT will depend somewhat on how fast the START follow-on treaty is ratified, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told The Cable in an interview, adding that the administration will only propose CTBT ratification when the fight can be won.
She also alluded to the fact that Senate attention is scarce and even after the NPT it might be difficult to make a full-court press.
"How many arms-control treaty votes does the Senate have? They haven't done it in a long time. How long is it going to take for Senate Foreign Relations Committee to do hearings? Does the Senate Armed Services Committee want to do hearings?" Tauscher asked.
"We're going to do it, but we're only going to do it when we are going to win," she added.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, told The Cable in an interview that a huge effort to compile scientific and technical data to support the administration's case for ratification was already underway.
"We have a lot or work to do be in a position to sit down with people and explain how this works," he said, "I think it would hard to do it before the NPT conference, just because of the complexity of the issues and the need to do the START treaty."
Kerry met with Secretary Clinton this week to discuss the CTBT and other issues. Clinton participated in a multilateral conference on the issue on the sidelines of last week's U.N. General Assembly meetings.
Key senators to watch include Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who both voted to reject the treaty the last time around.
Vice President Joseph Biden has been given the job of shepherding the treaty through the Senate, managed in his office by Jon Wolfsthal. The State team on CTBT, in addition to Tauscher and Gottemoeller, will be dependent on Jofi Joseph, who just came over from the office of Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and who is a strong advocate of swift ratification.
The NSC's Gary Samore and the Pentagon's Ted Warner are also said to be important players in the CTBT drive.
"We'll take this autumn and into next year to make our case to the Senate about this and then we'll see how the actual ratification campaign unfolds," a senior administration official told The Cable, "But the effort has already begun."