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Iran Outplays Obama at the U.N.

The diplomatic gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Watching foreign diplomats run circles around America’s striped pants set is always a depressing spectacle. In recent days we’ve been treated to some doozies—for instance, Iran being elected to the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women when our own (female) U.N. ambassador didn’t show up for the vote.

Iran Outplays Obama at the U.N.

But that is nothing compared to what is going on down the hall at the Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Held every five years, the conference is supposed to identify gaps in the treaty’s implementation and suggest fixes. Everyone knows what the gaps are. Indeed, for all practical purposes, there is only one, a loophole so wide you could steam a nuclear-powered submarine through it. 

The treaty not only explicitly allows countries to master technology that could be used either to generate power or build weapons, it obligates nuclear-savvy nations to help the nuclear neophytes develop that technology. Hence a duplicitous country can, aided by other parties to the NPT, do virtually everything necessary for building a nuclear weapon and, so long as it refrains from taking the final few steps, remain in full compliance with the NPT—and then withdraw at the last minute and build nukes. Which is exactly what North Korea did and what Iran is on the verge of doing.

Seems like a big problem, no? The Bush administration recognized it as such and at the last conference in 2005 proposed a series of steps that would have gone a long way toward closing this loophole. Unsurprisingly, none were adopted. As President Obama’s nuclear czar Gary Samore has accurately noted, fixing the NPT is “harder than changing the U.S. Constitution.” Diplomats in other countries are not fools. They know how good they have it under the current terms of the treaty and are in no rush to alter a single word.

Thus the Obama administration has understandably shown up for the current conference without an ambitious reform agenda in hand. Rather, officials intended to put the focus, justifiably, on Tehran. “This meeting is all about Iran,” one White House official said. “We’re not going to permit Iran to try to change the story from their failure to comply,” Secretary of State Clinton declared.

In a very narrow sense, her words have been vindicated. Iran hasn’t changed the story—leaving aside the fiery, defiant Monday speech by Iranian strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Iran didn’t have to do anything. Egypt did the dirty work on Tehran’s behalf. And the Obama administration went along with it.

To understand what happened, it’s necessary to take a brief excursion back to the salad days of the mid-1990s—the decade that George F. Will described, on September 12, 2001, as America’s “holiday from history.” The NPT was set to expire in 1995. President Bill Clinton desperately wanted an extension. In order to get it, he needed buy-in from the “non-aligned” movement states, and in particular from the Arabs. Hence he pledged that the United States would back a resolution calling for a “weapons of mass destruction-free zone” in the Middle East.

If this sounds like a gesture packed with many of the worst trademarks of Clintonism—devoid of substance, unenforceable, pleasant sounding, impeccably uncontroversial (who could be for WMD?), oblivious to practical realities, at once utopian and banal—that’s because it was.

But it was more than that. It was also an attempt by Arab states to put pressure on the only nuclear power in the region—Israel. Clinton went along in all likelihood because he calculated that the gesture’s very emptiness posed no real threat to Israeli security. If so, he would have been only partly correct.

It’s true that the resolution had no effect on Israel’s military posture and no power to change anything. However, for a state that routinely absorbs many multiples of its fair share of diplomatic blows, further isolation of this kind is not trivial, especially when that isolation is abetted by its only real ally. Worse, the resolution went beyond moral equivalence and into outright blame, implicitly fingering Israel—a tiny country under constant threat of annihilation, almost destroyed at least three times by neighboring armies in its short existence—as the bad guy in the Middle East’s WMD story. In the main, though, Clinton was right: Nothing really came of it and the whole episode was soon forgotten. There things lay for 15 years. Until this week.

As its opening gambit at the current NPT conference, Egypt revived the idea and convinced the five permanent members of the Security Council​—including the United States—to issue a joint statement reiterating their support for the earlier resolution. Voilà! Rather than the conference being, in the White House’s words, “all about Iran,” suddenly it was once again all about the U.N.’s traditional bogeyman.

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