Why the U.N. Nukes Conference Is Already Bad for Iran

After a week of oil spillage and Times Square terrorism, Barack Obama could probably use a breakthrough. He might have gotten a glimpse of one yesterday at the United Nations.

More than 180 countries are convening this month for the eighth review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Cold War agreement that determines the world's nuclear haves and have-nots. Predictably enough, such gatherings are usually rife with friction. Nonnuclear states argue that major powers have used the treaty to develop a "nuclear caste system," as Colum Lynch has dubbed it; they see it maintaining the nuclear prowess of existing powers and their allies (India, Israel, and Pakistan), while leaving vulnerable the overwhelming majority of NPT signatories. On the other side, nuclear states have shown little eagerness to voluntarily curtail their own power. At the last NPT review conference in 2005, the Bush team, lead by John Bolton, refused to acknowledge agreements reached at past conferences, essentially running the clock down by squabbling over the agenda.

This time, White House officials are trying a different tack, seeking to strengthen the treaty by passing an addendum known as the "additional protocols." Those clauses, originally drawn up back in the '90s, would permit the IAEA's nuclear inspectors to carry out unannounced checks on signatories' nuclear facilities, making it far more difficult for, say, Iran to develop a clandestine program. It would also mandate that violations of the NPT would be punished, as would any decision to withdraw from the treaty in order to pursue nuclear development outside its parameters.

By that metric alone, the conference is all but designed to fail. The U.N. functions by consensus, which means even a single spoiler can ruin the whole thing. Since Iran, obviously, has no intention of getting behind stricter IAEA inspections, there is little hope that the additional protocols will be passed. The real game, then, is getting support behind them that any spoilers are marginalized in international diplomatic circles. If it turns out that Iran is the only impediment to a strengthened NPT, it would lend even more credence to the U.S. case for a fourth round of Security Council sanctions against Tehran.

Judging by yesterday's opening speeches, that's exactly how the next month is going to go down. "Ahmadinejad starkly illustrated the fact that Iran, even if not in violation of the agreement, is outside the mainstream of thought," said Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, which has been closely monitoring nonproliferation developments. More than at any NPT conference in recent memory, that mainstream suddenly seems to have a rather big tent.

For one, U.N. officials came on strong in their condemnation of Iran's noncompliance with the NPT. Both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and IAEA chief Yukiya Amano used their opening speeches as occasion for a public scolding, even as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was seated right in front of them. "I call on Iran to comply fully with Security Council resolutions and cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency," said Ban. "Let us be clear: the onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program." Likewise, Amano called Iran out for failing to provide the "necessary cooperation" to allow him to verify that the country's nuclear program is peaceful. It may not sound like much, but such uses of the bully pulpit are actually quite rare--especially against a sitting head of state inside the General Assembly hall. The snub was reinforced when Ban left the hall to attend a different meeting before Ahmadinejad got up to speak, another rare breach in protocol.

Then there was what U.S. officials brought to the table. Unlike the 2005 debacle, this time around, Hillary Clinton released the precise numbers on the U.S. nuclear stockpile, a bold move not yet taken by any other major nuclear powers (it's 5,113, for nuke watchers). Clinton also offered up a $50 million increase in funding over five years for the U.S. contribution to the IAEA. While the nuclear have-nots can (and do) still rail against the asymmetry between America's 5,113 nukes and their zero, it's harder for them to make the case now that the U.S. is putting in a good-faith effort toward disarmament.

Finally, there are the the bellwethers: countries like Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, and Egypt (which is leading the nonaligned movement this year). As smaller powers, they remain the most disgruntled about the power imbalances written into the NPT, and the most likely to agree with charges, advanced vocally by Iran, of Western hypocrisy on nuclear disarmament. But last night, Indonesia took a big step away from that charge, announcing that it would ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty despite a longstanding demand that the United States do so first.

That announcement is far from a guarantee of nonaligned support for U.S. aims (Egypt, for one, is still hedging its bets, doggedly trying to get Israel's nukes out of the closet). But it was nonetheless a clear move away from Iranian intransigence—and, perhaps, an indication of the change in tone between the last conference and the current one. That's a shift the Iranian president didn't quite seem to notice. Ahmadinejad laughed in the audience as he listened to Amano rip Iran for preventing IAEA inspectors from doing their jobs. No one else there seemed to find the charge quite so funny.

Why the U.N. Nukes Conference Is Already Bad for Iran | News
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