Dealing with the nuclear-threat hydra

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The U.S. government has named Iran and North Korea as rogue states. Iran is accused of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and breaching the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea may already have a few nuclear devices and has announced its withdrawal from the NPT. The two states are very different and should not be conflated into a single threat.

Recent talks between the Iranians and the Europeans in Vienna failed to reach agreement on the key question of uranium enrichment. The Iranians say the NPT guarantees them the right to enrich uranium. The Europeans want a complete suspension of uranium enrichment and have offered, in exchange, a trade deal and assurances that Iran will receive enriched-uranium supplies under supervision as well as transfers of nuclear technology, including a light-water reactor.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will soon produce another report on whether Iran is complying with IAEA safeguards. If the report is critical of Iran, as expected, the issue may be referred to the U.N. Security Council where the Americans are likely to press for sanctions against Iran. Still, it would be a mistake to conclude at this stage that negotiations are certain to fail.

Because of its hostility toward Israel and support for extremist organizations, Iran’s theocratic regime poses a potential threat to peace in the Middle East. Yet, even with the reports of serious human rights abuses in Iran, there is no convincing case at this stage for armed intervention on the grounds that an immediate threat to peace should be eliminated.

Concern has been expressed in Europe that, if there were evidence that Iran had begun to develop nuclear weapons, the U.S. government might look favorably on a move by Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Following the intelligence foulups on Iraq, though, public opinion would require a lot of convincing that the evidence was incontrovertible. Any such preemptive move by Israel or the United States before negotiations had clearly and finally failed, and without clear proof of a nuclear threat, could in itself endanger world peace.

The six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear development have failed to make progress, but it is still possible that they can be resumed. Much will depend on the willingness of the Americans to show some flexibility and on the extent to which the Chinese are willing to put pressure on the North Korean regime.

Key pieces of evidence against North Korea include the regime’s own admissions, but in the absence of definite confirmation from other sources it is possible that there is an element of bluff in the admissions. That would not be unprecedented. After all, it now appears that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction, although he tried hard to arouse suspicions that he did.

The Stalinist North Korean regime is an anachronism in the modern world with its appalling human-rights record, but any attempt to intervene militarily would be dangerous as hostilities could lead to a much wider conflict. There is a strong case for renewing attempts to continue and widen the dialogue with the North Korean regime.

Iran and North Korea do not pose the only nuclear threats to peace. There are serious concerns about whether the Putin regime in Russia can prevent nuclear arms and fissile material from falling into the hands of irresponsible regimes and terrorist organizations. Corruption in Russia seems to have become endemic, and controls on nuclear facilities are said to be weak and ineffective. Weaknesses in Russia could well pose a greater threat to peace than the activities of North Korea or Iran.

The leakage of nuclear knowhow from Pakistan poses a potential threat. Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was pardoned by the president of Pakistan after he told Pakistani intelligence authorities of his contacts, but he has not been interviewed by Western intelligence and we may not yet know all the facts.

The decision of Libya to halt work on nuclear-weapons development was an important step, but suspicions remain that other regimes may have gotten access to dangerous technology. Some Americans suspect Syria in this context, although it is questionable whether Syria has the resources to develop atomic weapons.

Three powers, India, Israel and Pakistan, did not sign the NPT. Much has been written about the dangers of a nuclear conflict involving India and Pakistan. This event is probably deterred by the realization on the part of both that their “mutually assured destruction” would be the likely result. Israel has never admitted to having nuclear weapons and the Americans have not pressed Israel on this issue, but the probable existence of Israeli nuclear weapons is surely a factor in Iranian thinking.

Under Article VI of the 1968 NPT, the signatories undertook “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” This was reaffirmed at the review conference in 2000, but “the total elimination of nuclear arsenals” seems as far away as ever. A further review conference is scheduled in New York in May 2005.

We must hope that those taking part will be ready to demonstrate that these undertakings are meaningful and not just pious aspirations. In the present state of the world, it is hard to imagine the existing declared nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, India and Pakistan) being ready to take effective steps to reduce, let alone eliminate, their nuclear arsenals.

But we should expect them to ensure that nuclear weapons do not get into the hands of terrorists. Israel should be quizzed about its nuclear capabilities. Russia and Pakistan should be pressed to take firm action to prevent nuclear weapons and knowhow from leaking.