05.03.10

What Iran's Dictator Got Right

Iran’s president may be a fraudulently elected megalomaniac, but the man can give a speech. Reza Aslan on the truths Ahmadinejad spoke to power at the U.N. nuclear summit.

OK. So he’s a fraudulently elected megalomaniac heading an autocratic regime that tortures its own people and threatens the security of the world. That doesn’t mean he’s not occasionally right.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York Monday to take part in a conference held every five years to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the primary mechanism by which states with nuclear weapons try to prevent states without nuclear weapons from developing or acquiring them. This year’s NPT conference comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s historic nuclear security summit last month, which brought world leaders together to discuss ways to secure nuclear material and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. For obvious reasons, Iran was not invited to that conference. However, as a signatory to the NPT, Iran had the right not only to attend the five-year review, but also to address the nearly 189 other signatories to the treaty that had gathered at the United Nations.

And therein lies the insidious genius of the rumpled dictator from Iran. More often than not, the things he says are not only popular…they are correct.

As usual, Ahmadinejad made the most of the opportunity, using his moment on the international stage to excoriate the world body for its futility and hypocrisy in dealing with the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Say what you want about the man, he knows how to give a speech. Part of Ahmadinejad’s global appeal—and why he revels at attending these types of international gatherings—comes from the fact that he is usually the only person in the room who actually says what everyone else is thinking. And therein lies the insidious genius of the rumpled dictator from Iran. More often than not, the things he says—from his criticism of U.S. foreign policy to his denunciations of the United Nations (an opinion Ahmadinejad shares with the leaders of Israel)—are not only popular…they are correct.

Take these golden nuggets from today’s speech:

“Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation have not come true, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not been successful in discharging its mandate.”

That’s right. The NPT has failed as an anti-proliferation tool, not just because it has been unable to stop countries like North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India from developing nuclear weapons, but because it is based on the faulty premise that no one but the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should be allowed to develop, test, and maintain nuclear weapons. That may have made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when the outlines of the non-proliferation regime were first established. But in 2010, when any PhD in Physics has the knowledge needed to build a nuclear device, it is simply no longer a tenable solution to nuclear proliferation. In any case, there is no surer sign of the inherent weakness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty than the fact that Iran has managed to cheat and lie its way through it for two decades and still remain a signatory.

“The production, stockpiling, and qualitative improvement of nuclear armaments in a given country have served as the best justification for the others to develop their own arsenals, a trend that has sustained over the past forty years in violation of the commitments set forth in the NPT.”

Right again. The very notion of deterrence is problematic because without a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the U.S. Congress refuses to ratify) nuclear-armed countries are compelled to constantly update and refine their arsenals in order to keep up with each other. Ahmadinejad has a point: the deterrence policy has contributed to the escalation of the nuclear arms race. Take President Obama’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review, which, while prohibiting the development of new weapons nevertheless calls for tactical improvements to America’s current arsenal. How should China and Russia respond to America’s decision to improve the lethality of its nuclear weapons?

“No effective mechanism has been devised to address the actual threat of nuclear weapons, which must be in fact the most important mission of the IAEA. All efforts in this respect have been only limited to talks that lack any binding force guarantee and effectiveness.”

Absolutely correct. Ahmadinejad’s point is that the IAEA has been pressuring non-nuclear weapon states to abandon their nuclear ambitions while nuclear states have had full immunity to develop and constantly improve their arsenals. This despite the fact that the NPT specifically requires that the original five nuclear powers agree to take concrete steps to fully disarm.

How’s that coming along?

“Cessation of all kinds of nuclear cooperation with non-member states of NPT and adoption of effective punitive measures against all those states which continue their cooperation with such non-member states.”

Yup! Article One of the NPT explicitly forbids nuclear weapon states to directly or indirectly assist in the development of nuclear weapons by non-signatory states. Someone should have reminded the U.S. Senate of this before it enthusiastically authorized a multi-billion dollar nuclear trade deal with India that makes no real distinction between India’s civilian and military program. What’s to keep Russia or China from signing a similar deal with Iran or Syria?

“[Iran calls for the] immediate and unconditional implementation of the resolution adopted by 1995 Review Conference on the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.”

Ironic? Sure. Disingenuous? Of course. And yet, positively correct. Let’s not forget that a big part of why the last NPT review ended in total failure was the United States’ refusal to back its own commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, thanks in part to its even greater commitment to shield Israel’s nuclear arsenal from international inspections. To think that we could thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions while ignoring the other nuclear armed states in the region—Israel, India, and Pakistan—all of whom receive billions of dollars from the United States in spite of their refusal to accept NPT protocols, is ridiculous. Iran has learned the lesson that all teenagers eventually discover: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

All morning long, the discussion at the UN was focused on how Ahmadinejad was going to use the NPT review conference to divert attention from Iran’s nuclear program, thus further weakening the treaty.

I hate to admit it but listening to his opening address, I couldn’t help but think that Ahmadinejad had just perfectly outlined the terms of the month-long discussion at the UN.

So then, let the debate begin.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.