The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave a belligerent speech Monday at the opening of a United Nations conference aimed at fixing the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a leader of a nation with a secret nuclear program that threatens to break the NPT apart, Mr. Ahmadinejad would hardly seem to be a reliable partner to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
For one, the United Nations Security Council appears poised to impose tougher sanctions on Iran over its violation of the NPT. And in his speech, Ahmadinejad tried to deflect attention from Iran, focusing instead on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the slow pace of Western nations toward nuclear disarmament.
And yet, ultimately, if President Obama is to achieve his grand goal of a world without such weapons, he will need eventually to cut a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its defiant leaders.
Mr. Obama is taking small steps in that direction. The United States is expected to ask the NPT’s 190 member nations at the month-long conference to endorse a plan to hold a Middle East conference aimed at ensuring a nuclear-free region, starting with the appointment of a special UN envoy.
Such a step is a critical recognition by Obama that his denuclearization effort first requires more active diplomacy toward peace between rivals in the world if the NPT can continue to be a cornerstone for nonproliferation.
Previous attempts to improve the NPT faltered over the issue of Israel’s weapons (highlighted by the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement). This time, Obama and Israel (which is not an NPT member) are more active in seeking to hold the proposed Middle East conference – but only after a peace agreement between Israel and its enemies in the region.
That prospect may be a long way off, but it points to the problems that have eroded the NPT’s effectiveness over the past four decades. The treaty’s basic bargain is this: Nations that pledge not to seek nuclear weapons receive support for peaceful uses of atomic power while NPT members with such weapons must work to get rid of them.
But both Iran and North Korea (the latter left the NPT and claims two nuclear tests) are breaking down that bargain. Their drive for nuclear capability and their rule-breaking of the treaty could touch a dangerous arms race in their regions – the very scenario that the NPT is designed to prevent.
The hard question for President Obama now is this: What is he willing to do to achieve a zero-nuke world?
He is already creating momentum for maintaining the NPT as an anti-arms-race tool.
In addition to the possible Middle East conference, he was able to ink a new START pact with Russia in April that would further lower the number of nuclear warheads between the former cold-war foes – they still command 95 percent of the world’s nukes.
He has changed the conditions under which the US would use nuclear weapons.
He held a conference in March aimed at securing atomic materials around the world.
And he reportedly will add more transparency to the nuclear debate by revealing the number of US warheads.
Such moves by Obama might warm up a majority of nations at the NPT conference to back US proposals aimed at improving the treaty. The US seeks to beef up inspections of the nuclear programs by the International Atomic Energy Agency and to impose penalties on nations that leave or violate the treaty. Those needed reforms should also help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.
Putting the nuclear genie back into a bottle will require all sorts of deals, trade-offs, and outbreaks of trust between longtime adversaries (India and Pakistan, Russia and China, Israel and Iran, to name a few).
Is Mr. Obama up to the challenge?
So far, he is moving as fast as he can.