While the current news cycle is understandably focused on the tragic aftermath of the massive tornado in Oklahoma, it will undoubtedly turn towards Memorial Day remembrance as the nation enters the holiday weekend. Along with the usual festivities, I predict there will be a secondary story, absent a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, which will receive a fair amount of coverage on Memorial Day. That story will be the assumption of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the chairmanship of the United Nation's annual Conference on Disarmament on May 27.
American media outlets on both the right and left will no doubt decry the move as illegitimate, citing the Islamic Republic's poor human rights record, its opposition to Israel, and its pattern of perceived misbehavior on security matters throughout the Middle East. Criticism on the right will be particularly poignant. Some right-leaning outlets will likely make at least one of two errors in reporting this story; they will either (wrongly) interpret the timing of Iran's assumption to the chairmanship on Memorial Day as being intentional rather than coincidental or they will attempt to weave a narrative portraying Iran as a security challenge worthy of an American national sacrifice comparable to past conflicts. Such coverage, were it to occur, would present the American public with a false dilemma and an egregious choice. The reality is that a far different case, one based on sound strategic thinking devoid of alarmism, can be made regarding this announcement: that the United States should not only not oppose an Iranian chairmanship of the UN's Conference on Disarmament ... it should welcome it.
There are at least five reasons why the U.S. should acquiesce, albeit quietly, to an Iranian chairmanship of the UN's Conference on Disarmament.
Virtually no one outside the State Department and the UN civil service knows which state is chairing the Conference on Disarmament, much less any other UN committee, at any given time. As with every other UN organ outside the Security Council, the Conference on Disarmament has a large (65) and diverse membership that requires it to produce its work on a consensus basis. No single state can seriously impact the agenda of the conference without a certain degree of diligence on the part of its delegates, a workable and focused agenda, and a broad base of support from within the conference. Even with all these attributes, a state holding the chairmanship would still find it virtually impossible to get a final written product completed and sent to the UN General Assembly during its chairmanship due to the sheer lack of time. The average chairmanship term in 2013 is approximately four weeks. Iran is scheduled to chair the conference for a grand total of 27 days. Even if Iran wanted to cause mischief at the conference, there is virtually no chance it could do so in any lasting or substantive way.
Iran is a theocratic state that possesses a poor human rights record, openly supports Islamist militant throughout the region, does not formally recognize the State of Israel, and has at times directed highly inflammatory rhetoric regarding the Holocaust towards Israel. All of these can also be said of well-respected U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; the latter of which never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and developed a nuclear arsenal with scant repercussions from Washington. One could even argue the militants supported by Saudi Arabia (in Iraq and Syria) and Pakistan (in Afghanistan) pose a greater danger to the U.S. and its interests than do Iran's Shiite proxies. The fact of the matter is that every state in the Middle East has a flawed human rights record, has said outrageous things and at times racist things about its neighbors, and has spilled innocent blood pursuing its political objectives. While it may at times be necessary to disqualify certain states from serving on specific international bodies, such actions should be done sparingly. International institutions require international participation to work and to build lasting diplomatic norms. Not every state is a Switzerland or a Canada. On the contrary, most states come with moral baggage that at times must be overlooked in order to accomplish broader goals. While undoubtedly objectionable, Iran's moral failings are not especially unique and do not merit special attention from the U.S. or the international community at this time.
Critics will argue that Iran's ongoing attempt at maintaining a domestic nuclear program would undermine its credibility as a voice for non-proliferation and disarmament. There are three reasons why this would not be the case: the jury is still out on whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, Iran's Supreme Leader has in the past issued a legal ruling declaring the possession of nuclear weapons both un-Islamic and illegal, and Iran is currently a signatory to the NPT. Granted, Iran could at some future point walk away from the NPT and develop nuclear weapons. However, it is highly unlikely Iran would use its chairmanship, or even the period shortly thereafter, as the time for such an announcement. It should be noted that the state that Iran would be replacing as chair, India, was never a signatory to the NPT and developed a nuclear arsenal. India is now widely seen as an emerging great power and has suffered no lasting repercussions from the U.S. or the West for its weapons of mass destruction.
Iran, like other large states, wishes to enhance its national prestige and international standing. Given its current isolation on the diplomatic and economic fronts, this scheduled chairmanship is one of the few legitimate outlets Iran will have to exercise its influence across normal diplomatic channels. This is a good thing. However, if Iran is denied the opportunity to express its views and pursue its legitimate interests across normal diplomatic channels, it will seek these objectives through less conventional and less legitimate routes (terrorism, proxies, weapons proliferation, etc.).
It is no secret that the U.S. often pursues policies that run counter to its values. That is to be expected. What is unacceptable is when the U.S. pursues policies that conform with its values but run counter to its interests. Publicly berating Iran for participating in a legitimate diplomatic venue with selective moralist critiques impresses no one and is lousy diplomacy. It achieves nothing and only serves to harden Iran's suspicion that the U.S. seeks to destroy the regime. Given the track record and behavior of virtually all America's allies in the Middle East, such blatantly selective moral outrage is unbecoming of a superpower.