Will Iran, Korea really back off nukes?

Some laud moves with the two nations. Others are suspicious.

After years of setbacks to nonproliferation efforts involving North Korea and Iran, the news appears to be good: a reactor shuttered, inspectors readmitted, the brakes applied to uranium enrichment.

Or, as some critics of the diplomatic efforts contend, are the two nuclear scofflaws hoodwinking the international community with clever diversions while they pursue a goal of developing nuclear weapons?

North Korea last weekend shut down a nuclear power plant that provided fuel for its nuclear weapons program, while Iran has slowed its uranium enrichment program. Both countries have agreed to readmit international inspectors: North Korea to verify and monitor the disabling of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and Iran to monitor a heavy-water reactor that experts say could be used to develop weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran has also agreed, for example, to a set of new inspection safeguards for its nuclear fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz.

And six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear operations are set to resume Wednesday in Beijing.

But not everyone thinks that the nonproliferation developments signal progress. Some caution that what looks like promising compliance by North Korea and Iran could simply be a facade behind which the two countries advance toward entry into the club of nuclear countries.

The North Korea deal, which rewards Pyongyang with food and oil, marks the end of the Bush administration's tough, desist-or-else approach to what it considered rogue regimes with nuclear ambitions, says John Bolton, the administration's former United Nations ambassador.

"This is North Korea succeeding with a tactical maneuver, something they've perfected over the last 50 years, but I still think they are never going to give up their nuclear capability because it is their trump card," he says.Now an expert in international institutions at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, Mr. Bolton expects both regimes to interpret recent actions by the international community, including the US, as a green light to pursue their nuclear aims.

Prospect of denuclearization

But supporters of the North Korea deal in particular say it puts the international community back on a path – albeit a difficult one – leading to the Korean peninsula's denuclearization. It is not surprising, they add, that the Bush administration's regime-change advocates would condemn the accord with Pyongyang, since it suggests a return to pragmatic bargaining with adversaries.

"All the people who want to bomb Iran and believe we can cause a collapse of the North Korean regime have a vested interest in downplaying the significance of any negotiated solution," says Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

"First we had Libya, and now North Korea is showing the efficacy of a policy that tries to change a regime's behavior, rather than trying to change a regime."

After years of diplomatic and economic isolation over his weapons programs and support for extremist organizations, Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi gave up his programs for developing weapons of mass destruction in 2003. That decision resulted in full reestablishment of the country's ties to the international community, including with the United States. "We negotiated away a nuclear threat," says Mr. Cirincione, "and now Libya's nuclear program is in crates in Oak Ridge, Tenn."

Not so fast, say critics of agreements like the one with North Korea. They say Libya saw the writing on the wall with US action against the regime of Saddam Hussein and chose a different course.

In the case of North Korea, they add, the Yongbyon reactor was nearing the end of its useful life anyway, so Pyongyang gets fuel oil and food shipments for closing a relic. In that way, they say, the US and its partners in the six-party talks – China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia – are aiding in the longevity of a regime that starves its own people and threatens the North Pacific region with missile tests.

The key now, both proponents and opponents of a February deal with Pyongyang agree, will be the willingness of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to disclose and open to inspection and the dismantling of all his nuclear facilities and materials, including an unverified number of nuclear bombs. No one expects anything other than the missed deadlines and dramatic about-faces that have typified the North's diplomatic approach in the past.

Advantage of today

But that does not minimize the clear advantage of a closed Yongbyon reactor today, supporters say. Up until last weekend, the nuclear plant was operating while negotiations sputtered along.

"The fundamental flaw of the previous situation was that North Korea was operating a reactor that was producing plutonium while the six-party talks fiddled and dawdled," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "I'm not satisfied either, but the fact is that North Korea is no longer producing fissile materials," he adds. "And it makes a difference if you have material for six to nine weapons, or for 69."

As for Iran, Mr. Kimball says it is clear the Iranian government is trying to take steps that will stall movement toward a third UN Security Council resolution that presumably would entail even tougher international sanctions against Iran.

The key issue with Iran remains getting it to halt uranium enrichment, Kimball says, and for that he advocates what he acknowledges will be difficult negotiations. "Any agreement will have to have some kind of security assurances, something that gives Iran a clear vision of how [giving up uranium enrichment] can lead to better relations with the West," he says.

That approach has the advantage of tapping into Iranian public opinion. A new poll of Iranians conducted on behalf of Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington organization favoring public engagement with populations susceptible to extremism, found that while a slight majority of Iranians favor their government developing a nuclear weapon, 4 of 5 Iranians favor opening up their country's nuclear program to full inspections and to renouncing possession of nuclear weapons if it is accompanied by outside economic assistance and international trade, in particular with the US.That is all well and good, detractors say, but Iran is not really a democracy with a government that responds to public opinion. For critics of the current course, like the AEI's Bolton, the better option for a safer world would have been regime change, at least in the case of Iran, and an end to the Kim Jong Il regime.

Bolton says lost time and progress by both regimes in their nuclear programs make that option more difficult. But he says military action to take out Iran's nuclear sites, as difficult as that would be, still must be considered. "Admittedly, it's not an attractive option – until you look at the alternative, which is for Iran to possess nuclear weapons."

But Cirincione maintains that, as hard and unpredictable as negotiations with Pyongyang and Tehran may be, the prospects are better than under what he calls the nonproliferation-through-regime-change model. "We went to war with Iraq for the purpose of preventing an imminent nuclear threat. The path we're now on with North Korea won't be easy," he adds, "but it's a lot easier than Iraq."

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