Iran on Tuesday accepted a compromise on the agenda text of a global conference meant to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, in a surprise turn dictated by pressure from other nations seeking to dislodge the meeting from a week of deadlock.
Tehran's decision saved the meeting from near certain collapse and allowed it to move on to its main purpose — discussion of ways to tighten the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ahead of a conference reviewing and possibly revising the pact in three years.
Still, the delay cast a shadow over future preparatory meetings leading up to the 2010 conference and that meeting itself, because it put into question delegates’ abilities to reach consensus decisions — the usual procedure at such gatherings.
The issue stalling the meeting had been Tehran's refusal to accept a phrase calling for the "need for full compliance with" the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Diplomats accredited to the conference said Iran felt that wording would allow it to be targeted for its defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend all activities linked to uranium enrichment, which can be used to generate power as well as to create fissile warhead material.
Since the start of the meeting April 30, Tehran had sought to insert "all provisions" into that part of the agenda text, to reflect other commitments taken on by states observing the treaty.
The South African proposal accepted Tuesday will footnote that phrase to the agenda to reflect that all aspects of the treaty must be fully observed — an allusion to the need for the United States and other nuclear weapons states to disarm.
Iranian chief delegate Ali Ashgar Soltanieh spoke of the "flexibility of my delegation" in accepting the compromise.
Still, Tehran's decision appeared driven by the frustration expressed by other delegations. A delegate from the nonaligned camp — which normally backs Iran — said most nations were ready to accept either its request or resistance from Western nations to reworking the agenda text, but were increasingly critical of the delay over the issue.
Tehran's decision nonetheless allowed it to deflect criticism that it was prepared to see the meeting end in failure rather than be targeted for its defiance of the U.N. Security Council.
And if Iran's stonewalling was an effort to stifle criticism over its nuclear defiance, it appeared to have gone a ways in achieving its goal. As of Tuesday, the conference had only three full days until its scheduled end to focus on anything other than the agenda dispute.
Before Tuesday's developments, delegates had evoked memories of the 2005 Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which failed to make substantive progress because of similar bickering over procedural issues.
The statement Tuesday by Soltanieh, in which he said "my government can accept the proposal by South Africa," appeared to catch most delegations by surprise. Up to then Iran had shown no sign of movement.
But the U.S. delegation suggested the delay had been unnecessary because it was clear all along that the phrase "full compliance" meant acceptance of all treaty provisions.
"It's been disappointing that, as a result of Iranian obstruction of procedure, it has taken so long to get to the point of beginning substantive discussion," chief U.S. delegate Christopher Ford told reporters.
Iran argues it is entitled to enrich under the treaty provision giving all pact members the right to develop peaceful programs. But suspicions bred by nearly two decades of clandestine nuclear activities, including questionable black-market acquisitions of equipment and blueprints that appear linked to weapons plans, have led the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions over Tehran's refusal to halt its enrichment program. The enrichment process can be used for generating energy or producing the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Security Council members to meet
Outside the conference, diplomats said that senior officials from the United States and five other world powers would meet in Berlin this week to discuss ways to react to Iran's continued defiance of the council.
The diplomats said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns would be joined in the German capital Thursday by counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France — the other U.N. Security Council members — as well as Germany and a representative from the European Union.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty calls on nations to pledge not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment by five nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — to move toward nuclear disarmament.
India and Pakistan, known nuclear weapons states, remain outside the treaty, as does Israel, which is considered to have such arms but has not acknowledged it.