NEW YORK // Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rebuffed allegations that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons and lambasted the United States and Israel for bullying other countries with their atomic arsenals, during his address before the UN's disarmament conference.
In competing speeches yesterday between Iran's hard-line leader and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, Washington and Tehran repeatedly accused each other of violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) . Mr Ahmadinejad's 35-minute address before the UN General Assembly sparked a walkout by numerous western diplomats and cast doubts on the likelihood that signatories to the 40-year-old nuclear treaty could strike a deal over the coming month of debate and horse-trading.
"Regrettably, the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "The Zionist regime, too, consistently threatens the Middle Eastern countries." Mr Ahmadinejad called for the original five nuclear powers - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - to eliminate their stockpiles and pointed to the suspected Israeli atomic arsenal by calling for a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East.
"While the Zionist regime has stockpiled hundreds of nuclear warheads, has waged many wars in the region and continues to threaten the peoples of the region with terror and invasion, it enjoys the unconditional support of the United States government and its allies and receives, as well, the necessary assistance to develop its nuclear weapon programme," he said. By accusing the United States and its allies of playing on fear to deny developing nations access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, Mr Ahmadinejad's critique struck at the heart of the global nuclear pact.
His claim that "none of the non-nuclear weapons states has ever been able to exercise their inalienable and legal rights for peaceful use of nuclear energy without facing pressures and threats" wins him support among many developing nations. But some Arab governments and other members of the powerful Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a voting bloc of 118 developing nations, are increasingly concerned about Iran's alleged nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is purely designed to yield carbon-free energy.
This month's meeting is being viewed as a test of the Obama administration to bolster the unravelling treaty and achieve Washington's stated goal of a "world free of nuclear weapons" by regulating nuclear fuel supplies and tackling suspected NPT cheaters, such as Iran. During his address, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon pressured Mr Ahmadinejad, saying the "onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its programme", and called for Tehran to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.
"With respect to the Iranian nuclear programme, I call on Iran to comply fully with Security Council resolutions and fully co-operate with the IAEA," said Mr Ban. "I encourage Iran to accept the nuclear fuel supply proposal put forward by the agency. This would be an important confidence-building measure." The treaty is the most important global pact on nuclear arms and has been credited with preventing their spread to dozens of nations since it was ratified in 1970. It encompasses a grand bargain: nations without nuclear weapons are committed not to acquire them; those with them are committed to move toward their elimination; and all endorse everyone's right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.
Members states - every nation but India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - gather every five years to review how the treaty is working and agree on new approaches to problems. They aim to adopt a final document calling for steps to advance the pact's goals - in US-Russian arms reductions, for example, or by strengthening the hand of the UN nuclear inspectors. Such a final document requires consensus among all 189 members, giving each nation an effective veto and the power to derail agreements, with three of the past seven conferences breaking down into inter-state bickering and failing to yield a declaration.
The West suspects that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at developing the capability to produce atomic weapons, with the US, Britain, Germany and France negotiating a possible fourth round of UN sanctions against Tehran with Russia and China on the sidelines of the NPT review. Slotted to speak several hours after Mr Ahmadinejad, Mrs Clinton was expected to highlight revisions to US nuclear policy since President Barack Obama came to power last year. Mr Obama has made both non-proliferation and disarmament priorities in his foreign policy.
The Obama administration is eager to avoid another failure and is working hard with Egypt, the chair of the NAM, to ensure this year's conference is successful and ends with a declaration that reinvigorates the fraying NPT. Washington has been negotiating with both Russia and Egypt to find a way to back Cairo's call for a conference next year on making the Middle East a nuclear-weapon-free zone, despite Israeli reluctance, western diplomats say.
* With agencies firstname.lastname@example.org