World leaders will descend upon New York this week to meet, and deliver their annual remarks to the United Nations General Assembly. The Syrian crisis is sure to take up a fair amount of diplomatic attention at the podium and on the sidelines, but there will also be opportunities for nuclear diplomacy.
All eyes will be on Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, when he makes his first address to the body as Iran’s new president. He has made a series of remarks that have indicated an openness to a fresh dialogue around Iran’s nuclear program (see, for example, his op-ed in The Washington Post/Sept. 19; and an NBC news interview on Sept. 18). U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders will also likely send signals to indicate their readiness to engage. Whether or not the United States and partners will move quickly to take advantage of the apparent opening remains to be seen. President Obama has already been exchanging letters with President Rouhani, and Obama has said that the West should be willing to “test” his counterpart's apparent interest in opening a wider dialogue. Whether or not they meet directly at the United Nations, engagement with other leaders will continue on the issue and could grease the wheels of diplomacy.
To be sure, Obama faces skepticism greater than his own. Like Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some will see the new Iranian President’s remarks in favor of new dialogue as duplicitous (for example, William Kristol in the Weekly Standard), and will maintain that cooperative steps will merely give more time and leeway for Iran to become the next nuclear-armed state in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Congress continues to move forward with tightening sanctions on Iran, a process which seems to have taken on a life of its own.
Yet U.S. sanctions and force are not necessarily going to change Iran’s nuclear decisions, even though they affect the country economically. Action that works to address the nuclear issues and security concerns specifically are still available and active. To this end, the IAEA and Iran are meeting in Vienna on September 27 and E3+3/P5+1 Representative Catherine Ashton is also due to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering.
Many have also recently noted the importance and potential utility of re-focusing on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East (see here and here, for example) in light of the Syrian chemical attack, and Iran and other friends and competitors in the region would be part of this zone, including the one country that is currently thought to have nuclear weapons: Israel. A hoped-for 2012 conference on the Zone was never held. As other countries in the region might look to nuclear energy in the region, they will focus on how Iran’s nuclear program is addressed, and judge how useful it will be to stay engaged in the non-proliferation regime. (BASIC held an international conference on this issue of nuclear non-proliferation in the Gulf, back in March.)
Building broader confidence on non-proliferation efforts, and nuclear disarmament, will be on the agenda at another meeting on the sidelines in New York on Tuesday. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) will host Foreign Ministers from Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The group aims to keep focus on the consensus issues building on momentum from the last Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference of 2010; the quintessential meeting on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Two days later (on September 27) the United Nations will hold a High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament in New York, and NGO representatives from BASIC will be there. The meeting will be the first of its kind on this topic and will be aired live on UN WebTV.
On the same day of this very busy week, Foreign Ministers there in New York will gather for the Conference on facilitating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - a treaty which would ban all nuclear explosive tests worldwide - and thereby show countries’ commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Although the treaty has 183 signatories, and 36 countries required to ratify have already done so, the treaty cannot enter into force until the following eight holdouts agree to its ratification: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and Egypt; and also …Iran and ...the United States.
Taken together, the events this week could help strengthen confidence, and lead to just a little more optimism around the possibilities for arms control and disarmament back in the capitals of the participants. This will be essential if we are to have any hope of building the foundations for progress over the next 20 months remaining before the next NPT Review Conference in May 2015. The health of the non-proliferation regime depends upon it.
These are the opinions of the author.