Nuclear Gamesmanship: Clinton vs. Ahmadinejad

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From left: Richard Drew / AP; Mario Tama / Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York City

Walking out on Monday's U.N. speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been good domestic politics for the Obama Administration and its closest European allies, but it won't necessarily help them prevail at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference that began on the same day. In fact, the move by delegates from the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Hungary, New Zealand and the Netherlands, among others, may have perversely played to Ahmadinejad's advantage.

To be sure, the Iranian leader had been put on the spot by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who earlier and from the same podium criticized Tehran's failure to comply with the disclosure requirements of the treaty, resulting U.N. Security Council resolutions. "The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts" over its intentions, Ban said. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing the same event hours later, warned that Iran "will do whatever it can to divert attention from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability." She pointed out that Iran was the "only country in this hall that has been found by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] board of governors to be currently in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations" and demanded that the nation be held accountable.

But Ahmadinejad had always intended to change the subject and emphasize division in the international community. His speech played to the majority of countries that position themselves somewhere between the U.S. and Iran: they oppose Iran's building nuclear weapons and insist that it comply with its NPT obligations, but are not necessarily convinced of Western accusations that weaponization is Tehran's ultimate goal. Either way, they insist that dialogue, rather than further sanctions or coercive measures, is the way to resolve the issue.

The preference for dialogue is repeatedly sounded by key players in the dispute like China, as well as Turkey and Brazil, both of which are serving on the Security Council, where the U.S. and its allies are trying to win support for new sanctions. In this respect, the distinction between those who walked out on Ahmadinejad's address and those who stayed to hear him speak may not be insignificant.

Mindful of his capacity to shoot himself in the foot through wild and provocative rhetoric, the Iranian leader was relatively restrained while shifting the focus away from Tehran's nuclear intentions. "The possession of nuclear weapons is not a source of pride; it is disgusting and rather shameful," he said, slamming those countries that have them. And he tore into the recent suggestion by U.S. officials that the Obama Administration's nuclear posture review left intact the possibility of launching a nuclear first strike on countries such as Iran and North Korea should they be deemed to be developing weapons capability.

In the process, Ahmadinejad smartly highlighted an uncomfortable truth about the NPT: it doesn't allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but nor does it advocate that the U.S., Russia, France, Britain and China — or Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — be allowed to keep theirs. (Never mind threaten to use them to police compliance with the treaty, a prerogative that the Obama Administration's review seemed to suggest.) The essential bargain of the NPT, which came into effect in 1970, was that non-nuclear states would refrain from building weapons, while those that already had them would make credible moves toward disarmament. Clinton's argument that the U.S. would retain nuclear weapons as a deterrent as long as they exist elsewhere may not have been sufficient with the countries of the developing world. So, while Western diplomats focus on questions raised by Iran's noncompliance with the treaty's transparency requirements for its program, Ahmadinejad focused on the established nuclear powers' failure to make significant steps toward disarmament. As far as most of the developing world is concerned, both would be considered equal transgressions of the NPT.

Just as predictably, but no less problematically for the U.S. and its allies, Ahmadinejad aligned himself with the demand put forward by Egypt, backed by other moderate Arab regimes, for the enforcement of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. In doing so, the Iranian President specifically targeted Washington's tacit acceptance of Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" — while it is generally assumed to have up to 200 nuclear warheads, the Jewish state neither acknowledges nor denies the existence of that arsenal. Israel is not participating in the U.N. conference because — like India and Pakistan — it has not signed the NPT. (North Korea was a signatory but withdrew to develop its bomb program.)

The U.S. narrative on the Iranian nuclear threat portrays it as a menace against which all moderate countries of the Middle East are united. But the Egyptians are bluntly pointing out that Iran can't be confronted while turning a blind eye to Israel. "We don't think that there should be first-class countries that are acquiring nuclear weapons and second-class countries that are not in possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East," Egypt's U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, said last week. "We say that in order to be able to deal with the Iranian issue, you have to address the nuclear capabilities of Israel." The Egyptians, on whose support the U.S. depends for isolating Iran, want both Israel and Iran brought into an NPT-led regional conference on a nuclear-free Middle East next year, and are demanding that the U.S. sign up to the effort to make both compliant with a regime of transparency and disarmament.

When pressed, Obama Administration officials say that Israel should sign on to the NPT, although Washington has never pressed the issue. (It can't very well advocate for Israel to be exempted from the laws it says should apply to all.) On the Egyptian proposal, the U.S. position as articulated on April 30 by Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher is that "the best chance we have to achieve a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is to reach an agreement on a lasting and just peace in the Middle East." But that could be read by many in the region as tacit endorsement of Israel's maintaining nuclear weapons, which would, in the regional argument, work in Iran's favor.

The conference will run for most of this month, and is unlikely to produce any major breakthroughs. But the first-day scorecard in the U.S.-Iran showdown produced no clear winner — and that, in and of itself, could qualify as big news.