Administration Will Avoid U.N. Disarmament Session Chaired by Iran

By Patrick Goodenough | May 14, 2013 | 4:36 AM EDT

The U.N. Conference on Disarmament meets in Geneva, Switzerland. Iran is due to chair the body from May 27 to June 23 this year. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – The United States will not send an ambassador to a session of the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament that will be chaired by Iran in the coming weeks, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said Monday.

Mission spokeswoman Erin Pelton said the U.S. “continues to believe that countries that are under chapter VII sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies.”

But two years ago, the Obama administration had a different response when North Korea held the same position.

Like Iran, North Korea is the target of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions that relate to proliferation and that invoke chapter seven of the U.N. Charter.

Although Canada boycotted the North Korea-chaired session in 2011, the U.S. did not. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time the U.S. had “chosen not to make a big deal out of this because it’s a relatively low-level, inconsequential event” and would not “take any particular action with regard to that meeting.”

Queries sent to Pelton Monday about the different responses to the two situations brought no reply by press time.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the U.N.’s multilateral, ambassador-level, disarmament negotiating forum, established in 1979. Based in Geneva, its agenda includes weapons of mass destruction, reduction of armed forces and budgets, and the goal of eventual complete disarmament.

That a country could preside over such a body even as it faces international sanctions related to its nuclear activities is not unusual at the U.N.

At the disarmament conference, the gavel rotates alphabetically among the body’s 65 member-states, changing hands six times a year. Tehran’s turn falls between that of Indonesia, which holds the chair until May 26, and Iraq, which will take over on June 24.

The U.S. and many other governments suspect that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of a civilian energy and research program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued a number of reports citing evidence that Iran has carried out activities relevant to a nuclear weapons program. Iran insists its program is for purely peaceful purposes.

“While the presidency of the CD is largely ceremonial and involves no substantive responsibilities, allowing Iran – a country that is in flagrant violation of its obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and to the IAEA board of governors – to hold such a position runs counter to the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament itself,” Pelton said.

“As a result, the United States will not be represented at the ambassadorial level during any meeting presided over by Iran.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a leading critic of the U.N. on Capitol Hill, reiterated a call she has made over several years for the U.S. to use its financial clout to press for reforms in the world body. American taxpayers account for more than one-fifth of the U.N.’s operating budget.

“Allowing a U.S. designated state sponsor of terrorism that is itself under sanctions for its nuclear proliferation to chair a disarmament conference is another in a long string of incidents that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the U.N. has become a caricature of a caricature of itself,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Monday.

“It is evident that common sense has become anathema at nearly every level within the U.N., and its credibility has long since disappeared. To say it is long past due for the administration to threaten to withhold our contributions to the U.N. as a means of leverage to compel reforms is an understatement.”

Ros-Lehtinen says she plans to reintroduce legislation from the last Congress that would make U.S. funding to the U.N. contingent on far-reaching reforms. The U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act sought a radical change to way the U.N. is funded, allowing the U.S. and other member states to fund only those activities and agencies they determine are efficient and in the national interest.

The Obama administration opposes any such change.

This is far from the first time Iran will enjoy positions of responsibility in U.N. bodies despite calls by the U.S. to isolate it over its nuclear defiance. Since 2008 it has held such posts in agencies including the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Population Fund, the U.N. Children’s Fund and various U.N. General Assembly committees.

Last July, Iran was chosen as a member of the “bureau” overseeing a month-long U.N. conference in New York negotiating a controversial global arms trade treaty.

Other U.N. leadership appointments that have raised eyebrows in recent years include the elevation of Pakistan in 2010 to chair the IAEA governing board, despite being responsible for the worst known case of nuclear proliferation in history.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow