Intelligence Brief: Nuclear Nonproliferation

Posted in Koreas , Iran , United States , Asia | 16-Aug-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

During the first two weeks of August, the separate negotiations aimed at reversing and ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and at preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons were stalled by conflicting and divided interests among and within concerned states.

At the outset of George W. Bush’s first administration in 2001, Washington's primary, specific, geostrategic focus was to effect the denuclearization of the three states composing what Washington termed the "axis of evil" -- Iraq, North Korea and Iran -- all of which were perceived to be adverse to U.S. interests and irreconcilably resistant to a stable, globalized, capitalist order. Although the suicide aircraft bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 temporarily shifted priority to combating Islamic revolution, Washington's military intervention in and occupation of Iraq in 2003 restored emphasis on nonproliferation.

Undertaken to break the weakest link in the group of confrontational states and to force compliance from the other two or, most optimistically, to undermine their regimes, the Iraq intervention has had the opposite result. The intervention failed to uncover a nuclear weapons program in Iraq and the occupation has foundered in an unanticipated insurgency and incipient civil war. Mounting evidence of the limitations of U.S. military power has emboldened Pyongyang and Tehran, and has driven Washington to pursue multilateral diplomacy rather than military and economic pressure.

The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program -- including the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea -- and the European Union's diplomatic engagement with Iran -- pursued by France, Germany and Great Britain -- have leagued Washington with powers that would prefer Pyongyang and Tehran to denuclearize, but that have other interests that often push them to take a softer line than Washington's. The ambivalence of the powers associated with Washington in nonproliferation diplomacy provides Pyongyang and Tehran with leverage to prolong and stall negotiations, buying time for their nuclear programs.

Pyongyang Plays a New Card

Having declared that it possesses nuclear devices, Pyongyang either wants to keep them and build more, or to bargain hard for generous economic aid and, more importantly, credible security guarantees from Washington that would preserve its Stalinist regime, in return for denuclearization. Washington is adamant that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear program.

The other four parties to the negotiations with Pyongyang run the spectrum from Tokyo, which supports Washington's position, to Beijing, which claims to favor denuclearization, but desires preservation of North Korea's regime in order to curb Washington's influence in the Korean peninsula and to prevent a flood of refugees across its border in case of an implosion. Seoul leans toward Washington, but has pursued a policy stressing conciliation with Pyongyang, rendering its support for a hard line problematic. Moscow tilts toward Beijing on the basis of its growing strategic partnership with the latter against

A new round of six-party talks, arranged and hosted by Beijing, began on July 26 and was greeted with cautious optimism, as Washington abandoned its resistance to bilateral discussions with Pyongyang and repeated its pledge that it would not act to foster regime change in North Korea, and Pyongyang expressed its intention to negotiate seriously.

Despite the hopeful early signs, the talks collapsed on August 7, when negotiators failed to agree on a joint statement of principles that would set the parameters for future rounds. The deal breaker was Pyongyang's new demand that it be permitted to have its own civilian nuclear program, including a light-water reactor. Washington refused to concede to Pyongyang and the talks were suspended until the end of August, with Beijing, which provides essential energy supplies to North Korea and is its protector, urging restraint.

Although the future of the talks is uncertain, it is clear that Beijing is not heeding Washington's call to exert greater pressure on Pyongyang, leaving the latter free to complicate negotiations and throw obstacles in the way of an agreement.

Tehran Breaks the Seals

Tehran does not possess nuclear weapons, but has a nuclear energy program that it insists is for civilian purposes. Unlike Pyongyang, which has withdrawn from the nonproliferation treaty, Tehran remains within the agreement, which permits civilian nuclear development, but prohibits weapons production. Tehran has faced opposition from Washington over its intention to begin enriching uranium, because doing so would move it closer to the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Washington's hard line is based on the fact that Tehran hid much of its nuclear energy program from international inspections for 18 years.

Originally committed to attempting to change the Iranian regime, Washington has had to fall back, at least temporarily, to letting the E.U. negotiating states proceed unhindered with their diplomatic approach to halting Tehran's move to enrich uranium. Washington's problem is that the European powers have extensive trading relations with and investments in Iran, and have never been committed to regime change. Although the Europeans would prefer that Tehran abandon enrichment, they are reluctant to follow Washington's call for imposing sanctions on Tehran through the United Nations Security Council. The E.U.'s divided interests and consequent indecisiveness have encouraged Tehran to proceed with enrichment.

After rejecting an August 5 E.U. offer that would have guaranteed it fuel for its nuclear reactors in exchange for its abandoning enrichment, Tehran, on August 10, broke the International Atomic Energy Agency's (I.A.E.A.) seals on its uranium processing equipment and resumed enrichment. The European powers, which had threatened Tehran that they would join Washington in calling for action in the Security Council if Tehran resumed enrichment, backtracked, urging further negotiations and acting through the I.A.E.A. to pass a consensus resolution calling for Tehran to reinstate its previous suspension of enrichment and directing the I.A.E.A. executive to report on Iran's nuclear program by September 3.

Washington hopes that the I.A.E.A. report will pave the way for referral of the issue of Tehran's nuclear program to the Security Council, but that eventuality is far from certain. Tehran will continue to try to split Brussels from Washington and a move in the Security Council to impose sanctions on Tehran would face possible vetoes by Moscow and Beijing.

The Bottom Line

Critics of the Bush administration have long argued that it should adopt a foreign policy based on multilateralism. Now that Washington has been forced by circumstances to do so, the limitations of multilateralism have become apparent. Putative U.S. allies and associates often have divided interests that do not allow them to accept Washington's leadership wholeheartedly, giving Washington's adversaries room to maneuver.

During the first half of August, Pyongyang and Tehran escalated their conflicts with Washington over their nuclear programs, and Washington had no recourse but to continue on increasingly problematic diplomatic tracks, surrendering leadership to Beijing and Brussels.

The divided interests of Washington's partners make it most likely that the nonproliferation issues will continue to fester without any decisive conclusions, giving Pyongyang and Tehran the latitude to which they have become accustomed.

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