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Nuclear Conference's 'Incremental Success'

Interviewee: George R. Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 31, 2010

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Unlike five years ago, the 2010 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference concluded with agreement on a final consensus document affirming the basic goals of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Nuclear proliferation expert George Perkovich says the conference was an "incremental" rather than a "great" success because a number of states found ways to dilute the final language in the consensus report. He says that one of the positive notes was that Iran--a party to the conference who could have blocked the final document--did not do so, despite language calling for states to abide by their safeguards obligations, a clear reference to Iran. "You ended up with a final document that was a success in the sense that it moved things forward," said Perkovich, "but it was weaker in both the disarmament and nonproliferation elements because there were a few states on both sides that wanted it weaker."

The NPT review conference ended on Friday, and some people thought that 189 nations couldn't come up with a unanimous report, as happened at the 2005 conference. But in the end, they came up with a final statement. What's your impression of it?

Well, many of us before the conference thought that if it didn't end in a disaster, it could be a great success. It clearly didn't end in a disaster. But I don't want to call it a great success either; rather, I would call it an incremental success.

What were you looking for?

There are a number of things. The NPT conference could and traditionally has operated by consensus. Any state could have blocked any final document or statement of policy that would improve the strength of this nonproliferation regime. Given that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and was present in the conference, it could have blocked the whole thing. Other states have grievances and could have blocked adoption of the final report and none did. They were aware that there was a strong enough consensus and a strong enough convergence of all the major states, both from the north and the south, that this treaty and this process should be strengthened. And even Iran, which is usually happy to be the dissident, actually did not try to block it.

Why wasn't it "a great success"?

The conference wasn't a disaster, in the sense that it reaffirmed the basic bargains of the NPT, including the understanding that nuclear weapons [states] are committed to giving them up eventually. So that was important. But even so, the final document was weaker in a number of areas than many countries had hoped. A number of countries, especially after President Obama's Prague speech, wanted more concrete commitments on nuclear disarmament.

On the other hand, the United States, France, and others wanted much stronger nonproliferation rules to make it harder for a state to withdraw from the NPT without consequences. They also wanted to [require] stronger IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections going forward. In both directions--both from the disarmament strategy and on the stronger nonproliferation policies--there was walking back. And the walking back happened because there was a kind of a mutual interest to dilute it. The French were very opposed to stronger disarmament language, and fought that very hard. Brazil, Egypt, and others fought very hard not to strengthen* the nonproliferation provisions. So you ended up with a final document that was a success in the sense that it moved things forward, but it was weaker in both the disarmament and nonproliferation elements because there were a few states on both sides that wanted it weaker.

The final document called for a 2012 conference of Middle Eastern states to discuss ways to prohibit all nuclear weapons in the region. Israel was invited to attend as a non-nuclear state, which means it would have to give up its nuclear weapons and submit its nuclear reactors to IAEA inspections, which the Israeli government has already rejected. President Obama, in praising the final document, said the United States opposed efforts that jeopardize Israel's national security.

Iran seems to have understood that the balance of international opinion--including from the developing world [and] the nonaligned movement where Egypt is a leader--is getting fed up and is not satisfied with Iran's refusal to answer IAEA questions.

The Egyptians were absolutely determined that there had to be some greater recognition of the problem of Israel's nuclear status in the Middle East. They pushed hard, and they got an agreement to hold a conference. The statement requires all states in the Middle East to participate in such a conference. That means that if Israel were to participate, the states that don't even recognize its existence now--that don't have diplomatic relations with it, that don't meet openly with Israeli officials--would have to come sit with Israel and begin discussions on what would it take to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.

That means that Iran would have to recognize Israel, which it doesn't now, as would Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and so forth. So if this conference is to happen, those states will have to find some way to sit with Israel, which is a welcome challenge to the whole region. Israel can't be forced to give up its nuclear capability. Rather than being defensive and pretending that this hasn't been an issue all these years, it's better for Israel to step forward and invite the other states in the region and say, "OK, you want to make this a zone free of weapons of mass destruction? What are you prepared to do?"

That's a sophisticated argument. The Israeli politics are such that they immediately said they would not show up, but of course there's a long way to go before this conference will be held.

There are many things that can happen between now and then. I have dealt with current Israeli officials at very high levels who do understand that such a conference, on the condition that all of the states in the region participate, actually would be in their interest. Egypt and others have been pushing for years for a conference that anyone who wanted to could show up at. I and others argued that this was absurd, that in order to take this issue seriously, all of the states in the region have to recognize each other's right to exist, and that is reflected in this final document--not the idea that anyone who wants to show up can show up.

The United States would like to see more pressure on Iran, to make sure it stops its enrichment program, or is at least put under tighter IAEA surveillance. Were you satisfied with the document even though it didn't mention Iran by name?

You're right, it didn't mention Iran by name, but on the other hand, in several places it called on states to comply with their safeguards obligation. It called on states that were not in compliance to come into compliance. That was language that was clearly meant for Iran and that had strong support. And Iran seems to have understood that the balance of international opinion--including from the developing world [and] the nonaligned movement where Egypt is a leader--is getting fed up and is not satisfied with Iran's refusal to answer IAEA questions and so forth. The Iranians didn't push nearly as far as they could have, as they were prepared to do in 2005, because they realized that people are losing patience with them.

Iran is pushing for approval by the IAEA and the so-called Vienna Group of the United States, Russia, and France on the latest agreement it signed with Brazil and Turkey on May 17. It seems similar to the agreement reached last October, which Iran backed out of. What's your sense of this latest agreement?

You ended up with a final document that was a success in the sense that it moved things forward, but it was weaker in both the disarmament and nonproliferation elements because there were a few states on both sides that wanted it weaker.

This agreement, when you read it carefully, is in some places gratuitously charitable to Iran in terms of the conditions it allows Iran, in terms of patting Iran on the back, in terms of defending the right of developing countries to have nuclear energy. But in its substance, basically it accomplishes, or would accomplish if Iran were to agree to it, much of what was proposed in October by the United States and others. The best policy is simultaneously to move forward with sanctions in the Security Council, which is being done. Those sanctions have nothing to do with this research reactor in Tehran for which Iran wants the fuel. Those sanctions have to do with Iran's continued refusal to comply with the IAEA demands and to answer questions about its past record. So even if Iran cooperated on the fuel-supply issue, it wasn't addressing the IAEA question, and that's why it should be sanctioned.

On the other hand, pursuing this fuel-supply deal is wise because that shows Iran and the Iranian people, "Look, we are willing to cooperate with you, and we're doing so notwithstanding some criticism. So when you do things by the book that are harmless, we are prepared to cooperate." We should also be telling Iran that when you continue to not play by the rules, you're going to get sanctioned. That combination is better than if there were just the fuel-supply deal without sanctions, and it's better than just sanctions with no fuel-supply deal.

The United States has to make a decision if it's going to take Iran up on this agreement. That would open the way to some discussions with the Iranians.

As long as there are sanctions moving forward--which demonstrate Security Council resolve and show the Iranians there are limits on the gamesmanship they can have--then the United States should and probably will try to implement the fuel-supply arrangement that Brazil and Turkey have worked up. On the other hand, if Brazil and Turkey and others keep the Security Council from acting, then it would be very hard to make the case to go ahead with the fuel-supply arrangement.

Did the agreement not mandate additional protocols for the IAEA to allow toughened inspection?

No. The agreement nods to them, says they are welcome, and in a few places says they are very important, but there was no agreement to make them a benchmark and a common standard. And similarly, there were proposals that say if you violate a treaty and then move to withdraw from it, you can't escape the penalties of your prior violation before you withdrew. People wanted to make that clear, [but] there was pushback on that from Egypt and others so that language was diluted as well.

*[Editor's Note: The previous version incorrectly quoted Perkovich as saying these countries fought to strengthen the nonproliferation provisions.]

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