Resisting the Rhetoric of Proliferation
by SOHRAB AHMARI
11 May 2010 01:01
[ opinion ] Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once again came to New York City, this time to participate in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. While discussion of Iran's nuclear program dominated the session, he delivered a speech that made no mention of his government's uranium enrichment policy. Brandishing typically fiery rhetoric, he instead railed against the West, and particularly the United States, which he accused of hypocrisy and belligerence.
Ahmadinejad, whom Western powers see as an aggressive proliferator, also questioned the effectiveness of the treaty's enforcement. "Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation have not come true," he told the assembled delegates. "The International Atomic Energy Agency has not been successful in discharging its mandate," he lamented. While perhaps disingenuous, he is clearly right: The NPT framework has recently been unsuccessful in preventing nuclear proliferation in India, Pakistan, and North Korea, driven in each case by factors such as internal defense calculations outside the treaty's sphere of control. If Western suspicions turn out to be true, an Iranian bomb will be seen as the NPT's fourth and most catastrophic failure.
And the Iranian president did not confine himself to criticizing the efficacy of the institutions charged with enforcing nonproliferation. He went even further by attacking the very legitimacy of the NPT itself. Engaging in rhetoric designed to appeal to his rogue-state allies and some quarters of the Western left, Ahmadinejad described the treaty as a mechanism used by the United States and its democratic partners to abrogate the sovereignty of emerging powers and target those who would dare challenge a global order undergirded by overwhelming American military supremacy. Since it allows a handful of established nuclear powers to maintain their stockpiles while blocking the nuclear aspirations of all others, his criticism is not entirely without merit. The United States must answer him directly and forcefully on this issue.
It is not enough for the Obama administration to point to its commitment to drastically reduce America's stockpile of active warheads, as evidenced by the recent nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia. Indeed, the Iranian leadership may have read this move as yet another portent of American weakness and decline. Instead, the United States and its partners in the United Nations must argue that the current nonproliferation pact, even with its flaws, is necessary to prevent dangerous, unpredictable state actors like the Islamic Republic from one day acquiring nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts have not been shy about their adherence to a particularly extreme version of Twelver Shiism that commands its followers to actively hasten the return of Mahdi, the "Hidden Imam," by sowing chaos and enmity around the world. As American diplomats work to impose a fourth round of sanctions to persuade Iran to live up to its obligations under the NPT, they should warn that even a single nuclear warhead in the hands of leaders beholden to such a violent, messianic ideology would jeopardize the security of not just the Middle East but the entire world.
It may well be that the current NPT framework is unbalanced and unfair. It was designed, after all, to respond to superpower concerns of the Cold War era. That said, American officials should insist that the Iranian regime lacks the moral credibility to reform it. Just hours before Ahmadinejad appeared at the General Assembly podium, a judge in Tehran convicted and sentenced to death two young dissidents -- Mohammad Ali Haj Aghaei and Jafar Kazemi -- on charges of being "enemies of God." Over the weekend, Iran hanged another 11 people. These and thousands of similar brutal acts of repression committed by the Islamic Republic make it clear that the butchers of Tehran should not be the ones leading the charge to reform the NPT and the global order it represents. That task must be left to responsible members of the international community, be they great powers or the tiniest of island nations, genuinely concerned with the treaty's pillars.
In making this argument, the Obama administration would also honor the Iranian opposition's repeated calls for governments around the world, particularly democratic ones, to refuse to legitimize the junta currently misruling their country. Many Iranian dissidents have emphasized that the most painless way to ensure a denuclearized Iran is to empower its democratic opposition. Refuting Ahmadinejad's challenge to the NPT by pointing to his apocalyptic ideology and dismal human rights record would be a powerful step toward marrying these two causes. All this is not to say that the diplomatic track should be abandoned. It does mean that in pursuing engagement, the West should resist the temptation to abandon its highest principles.
Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American blogger and Northeastern University law student.
Photo: Peter Foley/EPA
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