Recovering From Nuclear Lies

The world is at a delicate stage in the struggle to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. The US gave North Korea a stern warning on Sunday not to test a bomb - as it appears it might do soon. On the same day, Iran's parliament thumbed its nose at a European offer of economic benefits to prevent Iran from restarting production of bomb-grade nuclear material.

Such defiance by Iran, meanwhile, has pushed Congress closer to passing a bill to impose economic sanctions against Iran. What's more, these twin crises appear to be coming to a head just as global talks have opened this month to bolster the creaky Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The talks so far are faltering.

Will 2005 be the tipping-point for making the world safer from nuclear weapons? Or will a current mix of negotiations and economic threats fail to keep Iran and North Korea from going nuclear, thus possibly forcing their neighbors in the Middle East and East Asia to also obtain atomic weapons in defense?

The answer partly lies in overcoming some big lies.

Both nations were caught covering up their nuclear programs in recent years, breaking international agreements. That makes the prospect of a negotiated deal all the more difficult to achieve, let alone enforce.

And that's why the Bush administration has relied on nations with more economic leverage - China in the case of North Korea, and Britain, Germany, and France in the case of Iran - to take the lead in persuading the two recalcitrants to back down.

US impatience over these situations, which is driven by its post-9/11 fear of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, has yet to be transformed into preemptive military action - although the US Navy is on the ready to inspect ships leaving North Korea that might be exporting nuclear materials.

Yet military action seems out of the question, for any number of reasons. It also seems unlikely that each nation's leaders will be persuaded to give up their strong nationalist urges to achieve nuclear capability.

The best choices for the US and others seem to be in making good on economic threats or simply accepting that Iran, North Korea, and many of their neighbors will go nuclear.

A third alternative - total global nuclear disarmament - was envisioned by the NPT in the 1960s but hasn't gone anywhere.

Catching Iran and North Korea in their lies has at least helped bring them to the negotiating table. Their still-small sensitivities to the pressures of other nations and their need for economic progress might still provide a breakthrough for keeping the nuclear age in check.

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