UN headquarters is set to stage the opening of the 2010 nuclear Nonoroliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, with an eye toward building upon the foundations of the 189-signatory treaty. Even before the opening ceremonies begin today, however, an expected speech by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has the issue of Iran's contentious nuclear program stealing the spotlight.
On the eve of this year's review, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, spoke about this and other key issues with RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev.
RFE/RL: What effect might the presence of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinjead have on the 2010 Nonproliferation Treaty review?
Henry Sokolski: If Ahmadinejad comes, it focuses debate and discussion on what to do about Iran -- whether Iran is in the wrong and should be penalized [for its uranium-enrichment program]; whether there's a way to slip by their misbehavior and come up with some kind of what we call in the United States a "win-win" situation, where they tip their hat in some way, such as giving up their enriched uranium for a period of time to buy a little more breathing space for when they might get their first bomb's worth.
RFE/RL: It's been speculated that Ahmadinejad may try to rally the support of the nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council. What's the likelihood of him succeeding?
Sokolski: He wants to make the case that he succeeded in making with Turkey and Brazil and much of the Nonaligned Movement, which are countries that are poor. And their argument and his argument -- Ahmadinejad's -- is that "we should not be penalized, we roughly followed the rules and certainly sufficiently that we shouldn't be bullied by the larger, wealthier powers who feel intimidated by our exercise of our clear rights," they argue, "under the treaty."
Henry Sokolski Now, [it] turns out you can argue about these rights, but the United States and most major countries have chosen not to argue about who has what rights to what nuclear technology. Instead, we've said, "Look, we think you're in violation. We believe that you need to build confidence up; you need to back down. The UN has spoken with a resolution saying that you should suspend your nuclear fuel-making activities, and you haven't. That's the issue. We've offered to take your enriched uranium from you that could be made into a bomb quickly and reconvert it into fuel and you've refused to do that." So for most of the major countries, like the United States, France, and others, it's time to inflict some form of additional economic sanctions.
The president of Iran is going to come and say, "No, no, no. That's wrong." And he may succeed in preventing the kind of consensus that the United States would need to get a major number of countries to back effective sanctions of any sort. So that's their game plan, I would assume.
Russia And China
RFE/RL: What about the positions of China and Russia with a view to a possible fourth round of sanctions on Iran?
Sokolski: They have been consistent in arguing that if there are to be sanctions, they should be narrow and light. And they, if you will, are more on the side of Iran than any other member[s] of the permanent five [Security Council members]. They have always been charitable, if you will, towards Iran for a variety of different reasons. That's not going to change.
RFE/RL: There's been speculation that Russia may actually be more inclined to go for tough sanctions than China. Is there any truth to that?
Sokolski: I guess for outside observers who are not diplomats trying to show success at every turn, I don't think the difference is as great as it needs to be. In the end, I don't think Russia is that interested in very tough sanctions either. It may be that they're willing to go further than China, but for all that, not anywhere near as far as, let's say, France or the United States might want to go.
RFE/RL: Is there any concern on the part of China that nuclear Iran may actually pose a security threat to them?
Sokolski: They have extended a lot of investments or made a lot of investments in Iran that have not turned out so well. And so sanctioning Iran means you're jeopardizing their ability to get their money back. So that's not such a good reason to be against sanctions, but it's a pretty basic one. In addition, China remembers being the butt of sanctions after the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square produced condemnation from most of the West. And therefore they don't like other countries suffering sanctions because they don't like the idea that they might in the future be the target of such sanctions again.
All in all, that's the reason why they'd prefer -- and they keep saying they would prefer -- to let diplomacy work rather than to punish Iran any more than it's already been punished. I think they can imagine, of course, at some point [that] an Iran that gets nuclear weapons might not be to their interest, but that seems more distant than the two concerns I've just listed.
RFE/RL: Besides Iran's nuclear ambitions, what other matters may be a focus of considerable debate at the conference?
Sokolski: One of the other metrics for success other than dealing with Iran is getting a joint resolution or joint communique out of this conference. And the reason why is that in 2005, under President [George W.] Bush, the American government wasn't able to get such a thing. And for Americans, with a new president, there's a challenge: "We will do what they were not able to do." Now, what [might] this resolution or communique consist of? First point would be, it wouldn't matter at all as long as it emerged that it was a consensus position. It would held up as a major success almost no matter what it said.
Perhaps a related metric for success would be how many things in this resolution were also contained in a resolution that the United Nations Security Council passed last September when President Obama was presiding. It was called UN Resolution 1887. This resolution has all sorts of desirable goals. Now, if you could get 189 countries at the United Nations NPT review conference to endorse that resolution and say, "We are going to go out and achieve these goals in one manner or another as so described," that would be seen as a major accomplishment.
RFE/RL: How might the efforts of the current U.S. administration for nuclear arms reduction be reflected at this conference?
Sokolski: A lot has been made by our president that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has within it an obligation to negotiate in good faith for nuclear reductions amongst the nuclear weapons states. And he wants, I think, to show that having taken the first step by signing this new strategic arms limitation pact with Russia, that somehow there'll be a dividend. And here would be a place to see whether this theory that there should be a dividend might play out. So he would like to be able to argue that, indeed, we are going to get the dividend and it will be evident in this three-week process.
RFE/RL: How is the agenda for this review conference being set?
Sokolski: Well, I think the key blocks of votes -- like the Nonaligned Movement, plus key members like those who are members of the UN Security Council -- will attempt to do as much as they can to set the agenda. I think the Resolution 1887 was America's attempt to set the agenda, but everybody has one vote, and you don't need more than one or two countries to prevent consensus out of 189.
This brings the whole project down to the least-common denominator -- one of the reasons why this is not a terrific forum to do the work they've taken on. It's a little unwieldy. So we'll have to wait and see.