Iran's Incredible Shrinking Influence

The trumpeted U.S.-Iran showdown at the United Nations was over moments after it began. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strutted and fretted his almost-hour on the stage of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference on May 3. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her smack down. If it were a boxing match, the refs would have ended it.

Jeers, not cheers
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become the new Muammar al-Qaddafi. He dropped into the United Nations from an alternate reality with talk of Iran's "longtime acceptance" of the proposed nuclear fuel deal and how Iran has always "called for love, compassion, and peace for mankind." This would be news to the negotiators from the six countries that Ahmadinejad stiffed last October, first accepting, then rejecting the fuel deal, and the green movement protesters shot in the streets of Tehran and jailed and tortured in the regime's prisons. 
Ahmadinejad's speech did have its moments for some countries, particularly his denunciation of the hypocrisy of states with huge nuclear arsenals and faux disarmament. Just because "he's a fraudulently elected megalomaniac heading an autocratic regime," writes Reza Aslan, "that doesn't mean he's not occasionally right."
But the scattered applause could not hide Iran's increased isolation. It was not just the walkouts during the speech by the United States, France, Britain, Hungary, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and other allies.
Before Ahmadinejad spoke, U.N. Secretary-General General Ban Ki-moon exited for another meeting. Unusual in itself, but nothing compared with his singling out of Iran by name, insisting it clarify its intentions during his opening remarks to the conference. For those not steeped in diplomatic ritual, this is a highly unusual put-down of a member state. 
Then, as Newsweek's Katie Paul reported, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano "called Iran out for failing to provide the 'necessary cooperation' to allow him to verify that the country's nuclear program is peaceful." Such statements are quite rare, particularly when the president of the country in question is sitting a few rows away.
Iran's own actions and the new U.S. strategy are losing it friends and support.
Shift toward American positions
At the last conference, five years ago, Iran's complaints of Western nuclear discrimination struck a powerful chord among member states and helped wreck the gathering (helped by U.S. indifference and Egyptian posturing). This year, bellwether states like Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, and Egypt (the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement this year) are tipping the other way. As Paul notes, "they remain the most disgruntled about the power imbalances written into the NPT," but there is a "clear move away from Iranian intransigence" and a "change in tone between the last conference and the current one."
Indonesia announced on May 4 that it would ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty now, rather than wait for the United States to do so before it acted. This is in line with U.S. priorities and a significant move from the world's largest Muslim country. U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the news as "another signal that nations are joining a renewed effort to reinforce global nonproliferation."
Egypt, rather than blocking NPT deliberations, is negotiating with the United States and Russia a mechanism for moving toward a conference on the stated goal of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Egypt has long championed this cause (officially, the policy of both the United States and Israel), but is frustrated by neglect of the issue since it was endorsed at the 1995 NPT conference. Progress now would undercut Iran's pose as the champion of the Muslim world on nuclear matters -- which is one reason why its rival, Egypt, might be pushing it.
"The matter of a Middle East zone is becoming a higher priority," reports the Global Security Newswire, "as nations in the region acquire nuclear power technology and consider their response to Iran's disputed atomic activities." The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) endorsed the concept in their joint statement on May 5
Clinton said in her speech that the United States was "prepared to support practical measures" toward establishing the zone. "We're not there yet, but we are talking," one Arab diplomat told Global Security Newswire. "A conference should look at whatever steps are necessary to move forward," another Arab diplomat said. "But we expect it would be one which would launch negotiations on a zone and not just be a talk shop."
Iran's waning influence in conference halls mirrors global attitudes. A recent BBC World Service survey found global attitudes toward Iran are the most critical of all countries included in the poll. Twenty-five out of 28 countries polled believe Iran's influence on the world is mainly negative. By contrast, global views of the United States' influence have improved sharply. For the first time since 2005, the world sees U.S. influence as more positive than negative.
U.S. strategy working
The shift in U.S. strategy from regime change (which resulted in an acceleration of Iran's nuclear program and strengthening of the regime) to a strategy of engagement and containment has put Iran on the defensive. By not overtly threatening Iran, the United States has enlarged the political space for internal Iranian protests and weakened the desire of other states to defend Iran from Western pressure.
Simultaneously, the United States has shifted to fulfill its own NPT obligations, negotiating new arms reductions with Russia, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its force posture, and uniting dozens of countries in a drive to prevent nuclear terrorism. This increases U.S. leverage to get other states to step up the enforcement of treaty constraints on proliferators. As Clinton said, "As we work to uphold our end of the basic bargain of the NPT, we are asking all signatories to do the same."
The bottom line? Ahmadinejad's diplomatic offensive flopped. The regime is, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden says, more isolated domestically, regionally, and internationally than it has ever been.
There is no complete solution yet in sight, and several key countries, such as Turkey, are hedging their bets, but as the NPT conference has shown the trends are moving favorably for American strategy.
(Reprinted from Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel.  Sign up here to receive the Middle East Channel's twice-weekly brief in your inbox, and follow the Middle East Channel on Twitter.)


Foreign Policy / Middle East Channel