VIENNA/ALMATY – With North Korea issuing apocalyptic threats of nuclear war in recent weeks, Western powers have been reminded of what could happen if they fail to find a solution to Iran’s disputed nuclear program, experts say.
World powers “are now even more anxious not to have with Iran a situation like the one we have with North Korea,” Oliver Thraenert, head of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich said.
On Friday, Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) plus Germany — met in Almaty for fresh nuclear talks in hopes of a breakthrough.
But the talks appeared to run into trouble shortly after they began.
A Western diplomat privy to the talks said Iran’s response to the offer from the group fell short of what the six wanted and instead amounted to a “reworking” of proposals it made last year at negotiations that broke up in disagreement. He said the two sides remained a “long way apart on substance” as the talks adjourned Friday.
“The P5+1 will be even more mindful of the need to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis before it gets to the stage of North Korea and possessing a nuclear weapon, which would make the situation in Iran ever so much more complicated and dangerous,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Whereas Pyongyang has already proven its nuclear might with three nuclear tests — including one as recently as February — the debate over Iran still revolves around whether it is developing an atomic bomb under the cover of its civilian nuclear program.
In any case, Western powers have been pressing Tehran to cut uranium enrichment and close a nuclear facility at Fordo to alleviate fears it is seeking the bomb.
North Korea’s brinkmanship — which has evolved even to threatening a nuclear strike on the United States — may not be “directly affecting” the Almaty talks, but “it certainly is in the minds of many of the participants,” Fitzpatrick said.
Tehran denies it is seeking the bomb, insisting its nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes. But its continued efforts to enrich uranium to levels that can produce bomb-grade material have seen it slapped with a series of hard-hitting U.N. and international sanctions.
The North Korean crisis could inspire Western powers, especially the United States, to try to restrain Iran with fresh sanctions, according to Fitzpatrick.
Israel, Iran’s archenemy and the sole, though undeclared, nuclear power in the Middle East, could also take action. In the past, it has repeatedly threatened military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
“The North Korea situation will surely confirm the view in Israel that Iran cannot be allowed to produce nuclear weapons. And that whatever it takes should be undertaken to prevent that,” Fitzpatrick said.
Even as Western powers seek to contain Iran, the lack of positive results from North Korea’s brazen drive for atomic power could encourage Tehran to slow or even scrap its own efforts.
Pyongyang has suffered under U.N. sanctions, the regime is isolated diplomatically and its economy is in a shambles, noted Oliver Meier of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“North Korea’s behavior was not without consequences,” he said. “The current crisis in North Korea might still show Iran that possessing nuclear weapons can lead to isolation.”
On the other hand, the escalation between Pyongyang and Washington might teach Tehran a thing or two about how far it can go in defying the West, Thraenert argued.
“Iran has closely observed the situation in and around North Korea for years. Now, of course, Tehran will watch how much pressure is exerted on North Korea,” he said.
In the end, significant differences remain between Iran’s nuclear drive and that of North Korea, from Pyongyang’s one-man rule to its withdrawal from the nonproliferation regime.
Tehran, on the other hand, is still a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subject to inspections by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“That’s why it’s so important that the international community send a clear signal to Iran that (possessing nuclear weapons) would be very costly,” said Meier.
“The path to the atomic bomb is not a decision that will enhance Iran’s role in the world.”