Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Diplomatic Nuclear Meltdowns Ahead?


Will North Korea explode some sort of nuclear device? Will Iran resume the pursuit of the enrichment of highly enriched uranium?

Well, judging by the reports one reads it sounds as if both of these developments might be imminent. If that turns out to be the case, we are facing a serious double crisis for the efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The North Korean issue is, in some ways, the most straightforward. It has been reported for years that North Korea has a rudimentary nuclear capability. There is talk of enough weapons-grade plutonium for perhaps up to six devices.

But a device is not necessarily a weapon. To get it to a target requires either to get it down in terms of size and weight or to develop very large weapons carriers of different sorts. It does not seem likely that North Korea has succeeded in either of these respects.

It is likely that they have the capability to explode a device. To do so would be a powerful political statement with powerful political effects. Strictly militarily, it wouldn't change that much.

Washington is highly frustrated with the failure to bring North Korea back to the six-party talks, and not the least with the somewhat mediating role that Beijing is playing.

Talks the last few days between President Bush and the leadership in Beijing are likely to have been an attempt to get the later to be far more active in stopping Pyongyang from a nuclear test and getting them back to the negotiating table.

So far there are no signs of progress. It is not inconceivable that Pyongyang actually intends to raise the stakes though a test. But it's equally conceivable that they are just raising the stakes in the diplomatic game.

They want a bilateral deal with Washington. Nothing more and nothing less.

Iran is somewhat but not entirely different. They are facing presidential elections in June, and there are certain to be different views in Teheran on how to go forward. No one really wants to be seen as weak prior to these elections.

News reporting is somewhat superficial, and the technical issues involved fairly complicated, but it does not look to me as the Iranians have announced that they will start a full uranium enrichment program.

They are taking a step - bad enough! - but they are deliberately not going the whole way. They want to pressure the Europeans and the Americans, but they are keeping all doors open.

Some in Teheran - not all - are most probably waiting for the offer of a grand bargain in which they get political recognition of their security needs, opening to the world through the WTO and access to technology, also nuclear, in exchange for a comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring of their entire nuclear program in order to gurantee its peaceful nature.

That would not be a bad deal, although some would clearly have difficulties with it.

It will be extremely important to keep heads cool in the diplomatic brinkmanship we might now be entering in both of these areas. Everything isn't lost yet - in fact, there might be new opportunities for genuine deals opening up.

Farsighted statesmanship is called for. Everywhere.