01.15.09, 12:01 AM ET
Truly, I had plans to write this week about something other than the United Nations. But over at Turtle Bay, here they go again.
To chair the 2009 governing board of the U.N.'s flagship agency, the multibillion-dollar globe-girdling United Nations Development Program, dedicated to promoting good governance and ending poverty, the U.N. has now picked--wait for it--the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This decision--reached last Friday--has escaped public notice, perhaps because the UNDP has neglected to advertise the news, or maybe because the world is too busy watching in Gaza the latest product of Iran's terrorist development programs in the Middle East.
But handing Iran the gavel of the UNDP executive board ranks right up there with the U.N.'s choice in 2003 of Libya to head the old Human Rights Commission, or Zimbabwe in 2007 to chair the Commission on Sustainable Development.
Except in some ways it's worse. For U.N.-sanctioned Iran, which last fall lost its brazen bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, this UNDP chairmanship is the next step in a creeping campaign for diplomatic influence and legitimacy at the U.N. via seats on the boards of the U.N.'s alphabet agencies--from UNICEF, to the United Nations Environment Program, to the World Food Program and beyond.
When I wrote about this pattern in December, Iran had just secured itself a three-year seat on the 36-member UNDP board. Now Tehran has been promoted to running the show.
Still worse, the UNDP is not just any old U.N. agency. It is the U.N.'s lead development agency, the chief coordinator in the field of almost all the others, loaded with money, dispensing high-level advice along with more than $9 billion per year around the globe--some $5 billion of that from its own budget and another $4 billion or so on behalf of other U.N. operations.
Headquartered in New York, across the street from the U.N. Secretariat's landmark domino building, the UNDP is a vast bureaucracy, blanketed in diplomatic immunity, bankrolled both by U.N. member-state contributions and hundreds of opaque public and private trust funds (the U.S., which gives well over $200 million per year, is among the UNDP's top donors).
Boasting a presence in 166 countries, the UNDP moves money, personnel and equipment across borders around the globe with minimal independent oversight. It does not bode well to have this kind of outfit chaired by Iran, with its record of running networks for terror and sanctions-busting nuclear procurement.
Prone to collaborating on "development programs" with some of the world's worst tyrannies, from North Korea to Syria to Zimbabwe to Iran (where it fields a big office), the UNDP has inspired quips in recent years that its initials might better stand for "UN Dictators Program," or that maybe, in the tradition of Oil-for-Food, the agency should be re-named "Dollars for Dictators."
With Iran's arrival at the helm of the UNDP's governing board, will anyone be riding herd at the U.N. to ensure we don't end up with "Moolah for Mullahs"?
That question needs asking at the confirmation hearing scheduled today for President-elect Obama's nominee to the job of U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.
Iran's ascent to the chairmanship of the UNDP's 36-member executive board took place last Friday, over the protests of the U.S., which broke with the U.N. custom of consensus decision-making to call for a vote. Iran won, 22 to four, with five abstentions and several board members apparently absent.
In response to my queries about this, a U.S. delegate to the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council, Ambassador T. Vance McMahan, said in an e-mailed statement: "The U.S. called for a vote on the chairmanship of UNDP because we believe that Iran is not a responsible member of the international community, and should not be given a leadership role at a major UN program, even if the position is a largely ceremonial one."
But this is no purely cosmetic post. The UNDP's own Web site includes an "Information Note," detailing the substantial responsibilities of its executive board, which oversees not only the UNDP, but also the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA.
The board is tasked to receive information and give guidance to the heads of these agencies, monitor performance, approve programs, decide on administrative and financial plans and budgets, recommend new initiatives and submit yearly reports to the General Assembly's Economic and Social Council.
In what universe does Iran's oil-based tyranny qualify to chair this board?
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran's main entrepreneurial growth industry has been terrorism--witness Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and a bloody trail of bombings, mayhem, infiltration and subversion, from Beirut to Argentina to today's Iraq.
At home, along with forcibly veiling its women and jailing and torturing its opposition, Iran--according to New York-based Freedom House--"is a world leader in juvenile executions."
Iran's "development" goals include the avowed desire of its president to wipe Israel off the map and Tehran's evident plan to develop the nuclear weapons to do it--even if that means violating five U.N. Security Council resolutions to date and seeking ways around U.N. and U.S. sanctions.
Iran takes up the UNDP gavel at a sensitive time, both for a tumultuous world and for the UNDP itself. At its first regular board session next week--while most eyes are on Obama's inauguration in Washington--the UNDP plans to forge ahead with re-opening its office in North Korea.
That office was shut down in March 2007, as a result of the so-called Cash-for-Kim scandal, which flared up after the U.S. Mission to the U.N. raised persistent questions about UNDP misconduct in Kim Jong Il's North Korea.
It turned out the UNDP's Pyongyang office, in violation of its own rules, had been funneling hard cash to Kim Jong Il's regime, storing counterfeit $100 banknotes in its office safe and, with North Korea then on the UNDP board, was using development funds to buy business class tickets for North Korean officials to attend board meetings in New York.
A report last June from a panel authorized by the UNDP itself finally confirmed--well after the fact--that the UNDP had provided North Korea with scores of dual-use technologies, meaning that equipment shipped in under the U.N. label of "development" could also be turned to military use.
A Senate subcommittee investigation, led by Sens. Norm Coleman and Carl Levin, further discovered, as disclosed in aJanuary 2008 report, that the UNDP in North Korea had transferred funds to North Korean front entities involved in arms and nuclear proliferation networks.
Some of these entities were in Macau. During a trip to the Far East last fall, I dropped by two of the addresses with which, according to the subcommittee's exhibits, the UNDP in Pyongyang had been doing business. One was a basement supermarket, which the clerks said had been in business at that address for years. The other turned out to be a locked apartment in a residential high-rise.
The UNDP now proposes to re-open its North Korea office, following a "roadmap" offering assorted promises of good conduct. That begs the question of who will enforce discipline and oversight, not only for the UNDP's resurrected operations in North Korea, but around the globe.
When Cash-for-Kim first hit the headlines, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon promised a system-wide audit of the U.N., then narrowed that down to an audit of the UNDP in North Korea--in which U.N. auditors never actually got into the country.
It took many rounds of concerted effort by a former ambassador at the U.S. Mission, Mark Wallace, to pry information from the UNDP about its doings in North Korea. It took months of work by Senate investigators to produce further findings. It took all that pressure, plus plenty from the media, to finally squeeze out of the UNDP some of the above information about UNDP doings in North Korea.
Apart from a few lonely holdouts in Congress, outside oversight of the UNDP has all but dried up. Wallace resigned from the U.S. Mission last year.
Coleman, who took the lead on Senate investigations of the U.N., looks doomed to be replaced by left-wing comedian Al Franken. At the U.N., Ban Ki-Moon, in response to Cash-for-Kim, basically backed away and ceded to the UNDP full turf rights to police itself, undermining his own ethics office and betraying a UNDP whistleblower in the process.
The UNDP's current administrator, Kemal Dervis, has announced plans to step down in March. Subject to approval by the General Assembly, it will be up to Ban Ki-Moon to nominate a successor, in consultation with the UNDP board--which has just elected, as its chair, Iran.
What are Barack Obama and Susan Rice planning to do about this?
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.