The U.N.'s top leadership used a high-level nuclear conference to publicly scold Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for defying U.N. resolutions barring Iran's enrichment of uranium and failing to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections, while the United States and its European allies staged a walkout to protest Tehran's nuclear stance.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N.'s chief nuclear-arms watchdog, Yukiya Amano, blamed the Iranian president, who listened politely from the audience, for provoking his government's diplomatic standoff with the United States and other key powers over Tehran's nuclear program.
The remarks by Ban constituted an extraordinary rebuke of a world leader in the U.N.'s General Assembly chamber, and it reflected mounting concern that Tehran's nuclear policy threaten to undermine the ongoing review conference of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"I call on Iran to comply fully with Security Council resolutions and fully cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency," Ban said at the opening of the nearly month-long conference. "Let us be clear: The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program."
Ban urged the Iranian leader to "engage constructively" in international talks aimed at resolving Iran's nuclear standoff with the U.N. Security Council. He said Tehran should access a proposal by the IAEA to ship its nuclear fuel abroad in exchange for a more purified form of uranium to power Iran's medical research reactor. The plan enjoys the backing of China, Russia, the United States, and other key powers.
In a rare breach in protocol, Ban left the General Assembly hall for another meeting shortly before President Ahmadinejad -- the only head of state to address the nuclear conference -- delivered his speech. When Ahmadinejad took to the podium, he responded directly to Ban.
"The secretary-general said that Iran must accept the fuel exchange and that the ball is now in Iran's court," Ahmadinejad said. "I'd like to tell you and inform him as well that we'd accepted that from that start and I'd like to announce once again that's an accepted deal. Therefore, we have now thrown the ball in the court of those who should accept our proposal and embark on cooperation with us."
Iran has repeatedly said in the past that it is willing to discuss the fuel swap, only to reverse course. It has recently been engaged in talks with Turkey and Brazil on a plan to revive talks on the deal. But the United States and its European partners have expressed skepticism, saying that Iran's latest interest in talks is aimed at stalling a U.S.-backed initiative to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran. Russia and China have cited Iran's refusal to accept such a deal in justifying their decision to pursue U.N. sanctions.
The Iranian leader used his speech to deliver a fiery attack on the United States for introducing nuclear weapons into the world and fueling the global nuclear-arms race. He accused Washington and other nuclear states of manipulating the international arms-control system, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, to preserve its nuclear privileges while pressuring non-nuclear states to give up their rights to produce their own nuclear fuel for energy purposes.
"Those who committed the first atomic bombardment are considered to be among the most hated in history," he said. "Regrettably, the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but it also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran."
The NPT established the essential bargain that has governed the role of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The five original nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- were allowed to keep their nuclear weapons, as long as they agreed to take steps towards the ultimate elimination of those weapons. The non-nuclear states agreed to foreswear nuclear weapons, but were granted the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs, subject to U.N. monitoring.
While the treaty has succeeded in stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, a number of states, India, Israel, and Pakistan, have developed nuclear weapons programs outside the treaty. North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty organization in 2003, secretly developed a nuclear-weapons program under the nose of nuclear inspectors. The IAEA's director general, Amano, expressed concerns about Iran's and Syria's refusal to cooperate with its efforts to determine whether those countries are pursuing secret nuclear weapons programs.
In his address to the General Assembly, Amano echoed Ban's tough approach, saying that his agency "remains unable to confirm that all nuclear material is in peaceful activities because Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation."
Amano said that the need to bolster his organization's ability to strengthen monitoring of countries' nuclear programs has increased as the threat of climate change has fueled renewed interest in nuclear energy. He said more than 60 countries are considering starting up nuclear-energy programs, and as many as 25 countries will bring nuclear power plants online by 2030. "Any expansion in its use must be done safely and securely, and without increasing the proliferation risk," Amano said.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images