Iran Hopes to Shift Focus to Israel at U.N. Nuclear Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | April 29, 2010 | 5:06 AM EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (AP Photo)

( – As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad awaits a visa to attend next week’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York, Iran’s fellow Non-Aligned Movement members are finalizing plans to use the event to focus on Israel, not on Iran.
Since any final document adopted by the conference requires consensus, the move could damage efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation elements of the treaty, at a time when the U.S. government contends that “nuclear terrorism and proliferation have become the gravest threats of the 21st century.”
Egypt is leading the drive to force Israel to come clean and dismantle a nuclear weapons arsenal whose existence it neither confirms nor denies. Egypt argues that getting action on a 15-year-old resolution calling for establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East is key to resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a [Mideast] nuclear-free zone” the Egyptian envoy to the U.N., Maged Abdel Aziz, told reporters in New York this week.
On behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Egypt plans to submit a document at the month-long NPT conference calling on signatories to the treaty to push for quick implementation of the resolution unanimously adopted at a 1995 NPT review conference, “including the accession by Israel to the treaty as soon as possible as a non-nuclear weapon state.”
The measure will call for a Mideast regional conference, to be held by next year, to launch negotiations “on an internationally and effectively verifiable treaty for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.”
An Iranian diplomat said recently that the main items on the agenda in New York, for Iran and NAM states, would be the Israeli issue and the question of broader nuclear disarmament.
“These two issues will cause serious political pressure and challenge for the United States and the Zionist regime [at the review conference],” Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the Fars news agency.
Asked about the Middle East nuclear-free zone initiative, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters Wednesday that “the issue of the Middle East is a complicated and difficult one in the context of the NPT review conference.”
She said the U.S. has in the past and continues to support the language in the 1995 document.
‘Constructive role needed’
The U.S. expects Iran to feature prominently in the review conference, which comes as it continues efforts to win support for a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions on Tehran. The U.S. delegation will be led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While the U.S. and European allies seek to win support for a resolution during the conference, Iran will continue its lobbying efforts aimed at blocking or diluting the measure.
The State Department confirmed Wednesday that Tehran has applied for a visa for Ahmadinejad to take part in the gathering, and indicated that it would likely be granted.
“I don’t think that we’re going to stand in the way,” said spokesman Philip Crowley.
Under a 1947 agreement, U.S. authorities allow foreign delegates unimpeded access to a demarcated United Nations “headquarters district” in New York. Despite the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, Ahmadinejad has attended and addressed the annual U.N. General Assembly session each fall for the past five years.
Crowley said the U.S. wanted to see countries be constructive at the conference, with the aim of strengthening the global non-proliferation regime. “Iran is not playing a constructive role and it wouldn’t surprise us if they continue on this same path.”
Scheduled for every five years, NPT review conferences aim to evaluate the treaty, to ensure that its provisions are being realized.
But the provisions are different for the five countries recognized under the treaty as nuclear weapons states – the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France – and the rest which are not. (Israel, India and Pakistan have never signed the NPT; North Korea signed, but withdrew in 2003 and later tested nuclear weapons.)
Under the NPT, the nuclear five pledge not to transfer nuclear weapons technology to other countries, and to pursue negotiations on effective measures leading to eventual disarmament.
For their part, non-nuclear weapons states undertake not to seek nuclear weapons. The treaty permits all nations to develop nuclear programs for peaceful purposes, under the supervision of the U.N. watchdog, the IAEA. The three elements – non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peaceful nuclear energy – have become known as the “three pillars” of the treaty.
It is the third pillar that Iran points to in asserting its right to a nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies worry, however, that Iran through its civilian program could acquire all of the components needed for an atomic weapon, but stop short of actually assembling one and so remain within the bounds of the NPT.
From that point, making a weapon would be a quick and relatively easy achievement, should Tehran decide to do so.
The last NPT review conference, in 2005, was widely regarded as a failure. The Bush administration tried to focus on Iran and North Korea, charging that they were in violation of their non-proliferation obligations.
Iran’s response was to insist that the meeting deal with all of the NPT’s objectives, in particular the disarmament obligations of the five weapons states.
NAM, whose 118 member states account for a majority of the 189 parties to the NPT, also complained that the emphasis was skewed, that the nuclear weapons states wanted to deal with proliferation only, while ignoring the disarmament pillar.
Marred by procedural wrangling, the 2005 event ended in confusion, delivering no final document to strengthen non-proliferation efforts.
Rice said Wednesday that President Obama has made clear the U.S. commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament.
“The United States has taken some very important and concrete steps, particularly in the last few months, that underscore that commitment and make very concrete, our steps, to doing our share.”
Rice said the U.S. aimed to use the conference to strengthen all three pillars of the NPT.
Meanwhile, as April draws to a close there are no signs that a draft Iran sanctions resolution will be ready to be voted on before Lebanon assumes the rotating Security Council presidency for May.
Crowley said Wednesday negotiations were was continuing but he did “not expect it to happen in the next two days.”
Iran, whose ally Hezbollah is a member of the unity government in Beirut, has voiced optimism that Lebanon will give it all necessary support in the Security Council, leading to speculation that a draft resolution may not see a vote before June at the earliest.
Last week Vice President Joe Biden voiced optimism that a sanctions resolution would be in place “by the end of this month or in the first weeks of May.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow