Successful 2010 treaty review conference, Iran sanctions bolster promise
During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama promised to "crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions."
In May 2010, 189 signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty met for a once-every-five-years review conference. Compared to the 2005 conference, which was widely considered a failure, the 2010 conference was generally thought to have produced positive results.
Despite numerous challenges going into the conference, the participating states "still found a way to constructively negotiate and find pragmatic approaches to defuse hot-button issues such as North Korea's withdrawal and nuclear testing, Iran's noncompliance, prospects for a Middle East (weapons of mass destruction) free zone, and further progress on disarmament, any one of which could have scuttled the proceedings,” wrote Deepti Choubey, then the deputy director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"For the first time,” Choubey added, "there are specific and measurable actions that states are asked to take in support of the three pillars of the NPT: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. These actions were drafted in a way to serve as a scorecard for measuring progress and ensuring there would be accountability at future meetings. Transforming the lofty goals of the NPT debates into tangible action is real progress.”
Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, added that among the important steps taken at the conference were welcoming nuclear-weapons reductions by member states, praising new and improved International Atomic Energy Agency safeguard inspection protocols and support for the importance of international discussions on multilateral control of sensitive nuclear fuel facilities.
The final document -- which was unanimously adopted -- "should be considered an incremental success,” Choubey wrote, adding that "it is not a lowest-common-denominator document.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has also helped enact "strong international sanctions” against Iran.
As we have previously noted, Iran has faced U.S. sanctions since its 1979 Islamic revolution, but since 2006, the United Nations and other nations have repeatedly tightened sanctions in response to Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. An October 2012 Congressional Research Service says "many” consider the current sanctions to be "crippling." The previous month, CRS wrote that "many judge that Iran might soon decide it needs a nuclear compromise to produce an easing of sanctions.”
Critics of Obama say he could have gone further, as Congress has sometimes urged, but others counter that policy differences between Congress and the president are hardly unusual, since the administration has to engage in diplomacy with other nations in a way that Congress does not.
"Flexibility is the watchword" for any administration, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations told PolitiFact earlier this year. "It's really hard to argue that this administration hasn't brought strong pressure to bear on Iran."
Changing the terms of an international accord such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is something that typically takes longer than one presidential term. That said, the Obama administration participated in a review conference that was generally praised as a reaffirmation and strengthening of the original treaty, and the administration has helped impose the most stringent sanctions to date on Iran. We rate this a Promise Kept.
United Nations, "Final Documents of the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” May 2010
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Prague, revisited," Sept. 17, 2012
Deepti Choubey, "Understanding the 2010 NPT Review Conference," June 3, 2010
Congressional Research Service, "Iran Sanctions," Oct. 15, 2012
PolitiFact, "Paul Ryan says the Obama administration ‘watered down sanctions" against Iran," Oct. 15, 2012
Email interview with Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Nov. 21, 2012
Resistance from other nations
During the campaign, President Barack Obama promised to "crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions."
When Obama came into office, if a country violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency would investigate, and could then refer a case to the the United Nations Security Council for punishment. But the security council isn't required to do anything, and with five nations holding veto power, it can be difficult to create a consensus package of sanctions. For example, the Obama administration has been struggling to convince fellow council members Russia and China the Iranian regime's apparent violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty warrant stiff economic sanctions.
Obama hopes to fix this by making sanctions mandatory. But he faces a stubborn and skeptical international community. In September, Obama was chairing the security council -- the first American president to do so -- when the body unanimously voted to adopt a resolution addressing a wide array of issues surrounding nuclear weapons. Most of Obama's arms control goals were mentioned; the resolution called for a treaty banning the production of fissile materials, the universal adoption of Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and urged more nations to permit tougher International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
But the idea of adding automatic sanctions to the Non-Proliferation Treaty is nowhere to be found. In fact, the resolution explicitly takes a different route by bringing violators directly to the security council, eliminating the IAEA as a middleman, but still leaving punishment in the hands of the council: "a situation of non-compliance with non-proliferation obligations shall be brought to the attention of the Security Council, which will determine if that situation constitutes a threat to international peace and security."
In a speech before the Security Council, Obama said that was progress. That may be true, but to us, it's also an indication other nations aren't on board with Obama's more ambitious goal.
"Countries don't want to give up their sovereignty in advance, they want to handle (the decisions) on a case-by-case basis," said Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists and a nuclear policy expert. While the United Kingdom and France are both on record supporting automatic sanctions if a nation withdraws from the treaty, China and Russia's actions on Iran indicate the security council is still divided. And smaller, developing nations without nuclear weapons are unlikely to strengthen the treaty's non-proliferation measures when they continue to believe the nuclear powers aren't doing enough to disarm themselves.
While things could change at the treaty's review conference in New York in May or at Obama's planned summit on nuclear security in March, it looks like Obama has a long way to go in convincing other nations to adopt automatic sanctions as part of the treaty. For now, we rate this promise Stalled.
The White House,
Fact Sheet on the United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nuclear Disarmament UNSC Resolution 1887
, September 24, 2009
United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1887 , September 24, 2009
Interview with Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, January 5, 2010
The Washington Post, Security Council Adopts Nuclear Weapons Resolution , By Glenn Kessler and Mary Beth Sheridan, September 24, 2009
The White House, Remarks By The President At The United Nations Security Council Summit On Nuclear Non-Proliferation And Nuclear Disarmament , September 24, 2009