Libya fallout: Why Iran, North Korea now less likely to drop nuclear ambitions

Had Qaddafi held onto his nuclear program, would he be hiding from Western warplanes? Libya's lesson will make it even harder for the US to reach a deal with Iran or North Korea.

It’s a pretty good bet that, as he sits in his fortified compound, Western airstrikes targeting his military, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi rues the day he heeded US pressures and gave up his nuclear weapons program.

And, more than a bet, it’s now a matter of record that Iranian leaders interpret Colonel Qaddafi’s plight as a lesson in why not to compromise with the US and other international powers on nuclear development. Their assumption is that, were Qaddafi still in possession of his nuclear and other WMD programs, the West would have thought twice before it attacked.

What that lesson virtually guarantees, though, is that while Iran’s nuclear program may have fallen off the front pages in the wake of Mideast turmoil and the Libyan conflict, the confrontation pitting Iran against the international community will eventually turn hotter than ever.

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The resistance of Iran (as well as that of North Korea) to any compromise on nuclear programs is “only going to get worse as a result of the Libyan adventure,” says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Now the question of Iran is going to loom ever larger in the minds of many, and the administration is going to have to deal with this.”

He says “incredible pressure to refocus efforts on the Iranian nuclear program” is going to hit the Obama administration in the weeks ahead – for example, when the intensely anti-Iran AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, holds its annual policy conference in Washington in late May.

Iran, West already stalemated

Iran and the West were already at a stalemate over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. But recent pronouncements out of Tehran suggest the Iranians will be even less open to compromise on their continued stockpiling of enriched uranium – fuel they say is for “peaceful” nuclear energy production, but which in a highly enriched form could be used to arm a nuclear weapon.

Last month, as bombs fell on Libyan forces, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the West-led campaign proved that Iran was right not to trust the US and other powers and compromise on its nuclear program. Unlike Libya, which he said gave up its nuclear program for empty promises, Iran “not only did not retreat but … officials tried to increase nuclear facilities year after year,” he said.

In 2003 Qaddafi struck a deal with the US and Great Britain allowing the longtime international pariah to rejoin the international community in exchange for renouncing terrorism and giving up WMD programs. As part of the deal, the Libyan government is believed to have made good the following year on its promise to turn over nuclear materials including thousands of centrifuges, parts for a nuclear weapon, and an advanced bomb design.

At the time the Bush administration hailed Qaddafi’s decision as an example for other “rogue” states facing a choice between increased isolation and the benefits of cooperating with the international community.

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In the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has often said Iran and North Korea face that same choice.

North Korea was even more direct than Iran in addressing the “lessons” of Libya. Calling the deal the US extended to Qaddafi in 2003 “an invasion tactic to disarm the country,” Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry declared this week that Libya’s nuclear dismantlement “turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the [US] coaxed [Libya] with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm, and then swallowed it up by force.”

Misreading Libya's lessons?

US officials say the Iranians and North Koreans are sadly (for their own people) misreading the lessons of Libya, and that it was Qaddafi’s turning on his own people that returned him to pariah status.

But what will matter most to the global security agenda in the coming months is not so much which interpretation of the lessons of Libya is correct, but rather how the Iranians (and the North Koreans) respond to the Libya operation, some foreign policy analysts say.

Tehran and Pyongyang have concluded that “the US and its allies had a plan for premeditated treachery [against Qaddafi] where none likely existed,” writes Doug Bandow in Friday’s online issue of The National Interest. Still, he adds, Iran and North Korea’s version of events – that once Qaddafi was “disarmed’ and “vulnerable,” the Libyan uprising “created an opportunity” for the West to “do what it had wanted to do all along” – is likely to reverberate beyond those two countries.

Looking beyond the immediate crisis to US nonproliferation goals, Mr. Bandow, the senior fellow at Washington’s Cato Institute, paints a bleak picture for President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

“The US government’s aggressiveness has demonstrated yet again that the only sure protection against American military action is possession of nuclear weapons,” he says. “Washington’s policy of peaceful nonproliferation where it matters most is dead.”

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