Security Council Unanimously Approves Nuclear Resolution

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 24 -- President Obama wrapped up three days of international diplomacy here by presiding over the U.N. Security Council on Thursday as it unanimously approved a resolution that urged progress on a laudable but perhaps unachievable vision: a world without nuclear weapons.

The six-page resolution was approved 15 to 0 following a bit of diplomatic footwork that ensured it made no mention, except through obscure references, to the world's two biggest proliferation challenges: Iran and North Korea. Obama mentioned the two countries briefly by name in his speech to the council, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a powerful address in which he all but called the exercise a charade.

"How, before the eyes of the world, could we justify meeting without tackling them?" he scolded, referring to Iran and North Korea. "We live in the real world, not a virtual world. And the real world expects us to take decisions."

Victories and Stalemates

No U.S. president had ever chaired a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. While Obama's decision to preside was intended to demonstrate his personal commitment to the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons, Sarkozy's admonitions appeared to be a forceful reminder to the president that for all his grand ideas and plans, a difficult and dangerous world stands in the way.

Still, Obama departed New York on Thursday afternoon for the Group of 20 economic summit in Pittsburgh with reassurances of his global popularity. His address to the General Assembly on Wednesday was greeted with frequent applause; even long-time antagonists of the United States, including Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez, had kind words for him.

The Security Council resolution was also considered a win for the administration. Thomas Pickering, a U.N. ambassador during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, noted that while the resolution did not explicitly mention Iran or North Korea, its passage comes as the world is preparing next year to reexamine the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has controlled the spread of nuclear weapons but is in danger of unraveling. The resolution "solidifies an international commitment" to disarmament and nonproliferation, Pickering said.

Not everything went Obama's way here. His high-profile push to restart Middle East peace talks was met with skepticism. Diplomats came no closer to resolving the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The White House trumpeted a statement Obama wrangled from Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, who said that more sanctions on Iran "may be inevitable." But that statement was no different from what he had said a week earlier. Moreover, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov -- who both may hold more sway over foreign policy than Medvedev -- have not signaled any change in their opposition to sanctions.

Meanwhile, Medvedev's statement to the Security Council on Thursday made clear that despite the diplomatic niceties over Obama's nuclear initiative, Russia has no interest in ever giving up its nuclear weapons.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an interview with The Washington Post and Newsweek, appeared to crack open the door to the country's largely secret nuclear program, saying he would allow Iranian scientists to meet with Western experts. But a State Department official said that Ahmadinejad's offer fell short of what the U.S. government was expecting the Islamic republic to offer in talks next week.

"I don't think just talking to scientists opens up their nuclear program," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid about the sensitive topic. He added that "there's a real sense of urgency" in the U.S. government about Iran's nuclear program. "We really hope they come armed with some serious proposals on Oct. 1."

Middle East Peace Talks

Obama's talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas exposed perhaps the biggest gap between the president's aspirations and the reality on the ground. Obama came into office pledging a full-time focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even appointing a special envoy on his second day in the White House.

But he acknowledged this week that his initial emphasis on pressing Israel to agree to a settlement freeze was unlikely to succeed. He announced instead that he would press the parties to immediately begin peace talks on vexing "final status" issues such as the division of Jerusalem, the return of refugees and final borders.

That effort also has been resisted. Netanyahu suggested that he is unwilling to negotiate much on either a partition of Jerusalem or on allowing any Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Abbas says he won't even think of negotiating unless settlement expansion on the West Bank is halted.

Abbas told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper that there were "fundamental differences" between the two sides on what should be on the agenda for talks. "We can't go on unless there is a clear path," he said. "The road must be defined so we can know where we are going."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report from Washington.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company