President Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament the top priority of his diplomatic outreach this year, but that vision will face a sharp challenge at the United Nations in New York Monday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes the stage.
Announcing only last week that he would attend a 189-nation conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the controversial Iranian leader plans to mount a frontal attack on world nuclear powers – the United States chief among them – that he will say have failed in the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations.
Monday’s opening session of a normally staid, little-noticed, twice-a-decade review of the treaty takes on the trappings of a clash of rival global visions because Mr. Ahmadinejad will be closely followed on the conference dais by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary Clinton may or may not refer to Iran by name in her comments, but aides say she will declare the 40-year-old NPT, considered a cornerstone of international security, threatened by countries like Iran and North Korea that, according to UN nuclear experts, have violated its terms.
The Obama administration is pressing for what would be a fourth round of international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which Western powers suspect is aimed at delivering a nuclear weapon. Clinton is expected to use her UN visit to lobby Security Council members to approve tough new sanctions on Iran.
But she is no doubt aware that Ahmadinejad’s high-profile visit to New York and a fiery, us-little-guys-against-them-bullies speech from him risk winning some sympathetic support in an international gathering with many small and relatively powerless countries.
Declaring on “Meet the Press” Sunday that Ahmadinejad would “try to divert attention and confuse the issue” in his speech, Clinton added, “We’re not going to permit Iran to try to change the story from their failure to comply” with NPT obligations.
Ahmadinejad unapologetic over Iran's secrecy
Iran has failed to allow UN nuclear inspectors into all of its nuclear sites and last year revealed previously unknown underground sites only after word of their existence began to surface.
But Ahmadinejad remains unapologetic about Iran’s nuclear program. He signaled his intentions to stay on the offensive at the UN in comments he made before leaving Tehran Sunday. Noting that the US is the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon against an adversary, the Iranian president said that “unfortunately” the NPT has failed at nonproliferation and disarmament.
“The atom bomb has become a tool for bullying, domination, and expansionism of some countries and governments,” he said.
The Clinton-Ahmadinejad faceoff has led some nuclear experts to conclude that a month-long treaty review conference, which already faced stiff odds against its accomplishing anything, now confronts an even rougher road.
“Ahmadinejad is going to pound the podium with his rant on the little guy’s rights, he’s going to tell all the other little guys in the audience that we [Iran] have done nothing wrong, that it’s the US that wants to keep you down – and suddenly it’s going to be very hard to keep everyone on the reservation,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Education Center in Washington. “It will be tougher than ever to get anything done.”
US holds modest hopes for NPT review
Administration officials have painted a picture of a more-favorable-than-usual climate for the NPT review, citing Obama’s year-long focus on nuclear issues since his April 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, and especially because of the new nuclear arms reduction accord Obama signed with Russia last month.
But they still warn “no guarantees” when asked about prospects for a substantive final declaration at the end of the conference May 28. They indicate the US will be happy if the four-week conference results in no more than an agenda for moving forward on nonproliferation, disarmament, and access to peaceful nuclear energy – the NPT’s so-called three pillars.
“It is not about a final communiqué or a product that comes out other than an ambition to move forward together,” said Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary for arms control and international security, in briefing reporters Friday on the NPT review. “We’re serious about this [conference], but we’re also sanguine and have our eyes wide open about it.”