War Stories

Let’s Talk About Nukes

Why we must continue to negotiate with Pyongyang and Tehran.

Happy to talk about nukes
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Happy to talk about nukes

The nuclear-arms talks with Iran and North Korea—the two remaining spokes on the axis of evil—are both stalled. However, a distinction should be drawn. There’s a good chance that some kind of an accord can be reached with Pyongyang, while the odds are slim for any success with Tehran. So, what to do about both?

The most important thing about the negotiations with North Korea is that they’re taking place at all. Throughout his first term, President George W. Bush strictly forbade any contact. His policy was to wait for Kim Jong-il’s dread regime to tumble. To engage in diplomacy would be to acknowledge Kim’s legitimacy; to offer him inducements toward a treaty would perpetuate his reign.

If Condoleezza Rice has done nothing else as secretary of state, she has persuaded Bush to revive diplomacy as a tool of foreign policy—emphatically so, it turns out, on North Korea. Christopher Hill, Rice’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, recently wrapped up 13 sessions of talks with North Korean officials in Beijing, including face-to-face bilateral talks. They didn’t result in an accord, but no one expected them to, and the talks will resume next month.

It’s worth noting that the Clinton administration slogged through 50 sessions of talks before signing the Agreed Framework of 1994, the accord that placed Pyongyang’s nuclear program under lock and key for nearly a decade. They were all maddening sessions, apparently, with North Korean diplomats time and again agreeing to some provision, then reneging on it within days or even hours. In his fascinating account of those talks, Negotiating on the Edge, Scott Snyder describes North Korea’s diplomatic style as “a prolonged cycle of crisis, intimidation, and brinksmanship.”

In other words, Hill’s 13 sessions should be seen as the mere beginning—and, by some reports, they were conducted with far less Sturm und Drang than those of a decade ago. Their major accomplishment was the acceptance of Kim’s most innocuous but basic demands—the recognition of North Korea as a sovereign state, a pledge not to attack its territory, and an agreement to provide energy assistance in exchange for Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament. Compared with this major breakthrough, the remaining disputes are minor—which is not to say trivial or easy to resolve.

The biggest of these disputes concerns the precise form of energy assistance. Kim Jong-il wants the United States and its partners in these “six-party talks” (the other parties are China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan) to give him two light-water nuclear reactors—which were promised, but never delivered, as part of the ‘94 accord. The Bush administration refuses to revive this element of the deal, noting that North Korea has been secretly enriching uranium at a similar type of reactor. Instead, Washington and Seoul are offering Pyongyang free electricity from extended South Korean power lines.

But the main reason for guarded optimism is that, all along, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons primarily as a bargaining chip for security and foreign aid. This seemed to be the main motive behind the country’s first nuclear crisis, which Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-il’s late father) fomented in 1993, a crisis that was resolved with the following year’s Agreed Framework. And Kim fils seemed to have the same goal in mind when he launched a replay of that crisis in 2002.

If some accord is reached now, it will be implemented in step-by-step phases. (The ‘94 agreement was supposed to work this way too, but both sides reneged after Phase 1.) Some of the fiercest disputes are, and will be, over timing—which side takes which steps first in the back-and-forth between disarming nukes and dispensing rewards.

The knottiest problem, though, will be verification. Two and a half years have passed since the Agreed Framework fell apart and the North Koreans resumed reprocessing plutonium. How can any disarmament treaty ensure that all their nuclear materials are destroyed or secured? This is especially troubling given that North Korea is the world’s most closed society and that its military is famously adept at tunnels and underground facilities.

One hope is that, as North Korea opens up its economy to more aid and trade, it may open up in other ways as well—and that this Far Eastern glasnostmight parallel the phased steps of a disarmament treaty. But this is a wishful vision; nothing in the annals of Kim Jong-il’s rule—or that of Kim Il Sung—offers any grounds for supposing it might come true.

The tragedy of this saga is that President Bush could as easily have started these talks in 2002, when North Korea’s fuel rods were still under the lock and surveillance of international inspectors. (Pyongyang was practically begging for negotiations all through 2003.) The irony is that, just as serious diplomacy has finally got under way, its optimal moment may have passed. Some kind of accord will likely be worked out, and, depending on what it is, it may be better than nothing. But the chances of a complete and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program seem, at this late date, slim.


Chances seem slimmer still for an accord with Iran. Whereas nukes are the only chips that Kim Jong-il can fling on the table, the Iranians have much, much more. Above all, they have oil—and thus a cash chest that swells with each day of soaring prices. They also have an expansive regional policy, through an alliance with Hezbollah and dreams of a “crescent arc” spanning from Tehran to Baghdad and beyond. Well before the mullahs, even before the shah, Iranian rulers have regarded their nation as a major power, and it is hard not to notice that A-bombs are the undisputed emblem of every major power around them—Israel, India, and Pakistan, to say nothing of the United States, the superpower that they see, with reason, as their most persistent, potent threat.

Last March, after months of refusing to do so, President Bush formally endorsed the Iranian nuclear-arms talks that had been initiated by Britain, France, and Germany (aka the EU-3). Last week, the talks slipped into the abyss, as Iran defiantly resumed its enrichment of uranium—a step that the Western negotiators had warned would precipitate a referral to the U.N. Security Council, which could declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, thus, subject to economic sanctions. (Iran signed the NPT, unlike India, Pakistan, or Israel; North Korea signed but, in 2003, revoked it.)

The problem here is that Russia and China would probably veto a resolution for sanctions—Russia because it has supplied Iran with nuclear materials, China because it wants to import more Iranian oil. So, where does that leave us?

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations have urged Bush to get directly and deeply involved in the negotiations and to offer Iran security guarantees, full diplomatic relations, and massive investment opportunities—in short, to lure Iran into the community of civilized nations as a reward for halting its progress toward building A-bombs.

The EU-3 recently offered Iran a similar deal, which the Iranians rejected, citing an inalienable right to enrich uranium. Some advocates of further diplomacy say that only the United States can supply such benefits and that if Bush had offered the deal, it might have been received more warmly.

I’m skeptical. Why would the Iranians accept a signed pledge of nonaggression from an avowed foe over the tangible deterrent of a nuclear arsenal? Why would the United States want to get chummy with a country that the State Department has fingered as a leading supporter of terrorism? As a practical matter, any American president would demand, as part of a deal, that Iran not only forgo enrichment but also break with Hezbollah, clean up its human-rights practices, adopt at least a neutral stance toward Israel, and perhaps stop meddling in Iraq. Would the Iranian mullahs take such actions if they thought they could gain power and security on their own?

The composition of the new Iranian Cabinet—younger, more nationalistic, and more hawkish than even the previous Cabinet—reinforces this skepticism. (Even Ray Takeyh told me today that his earlier writings on deal-making “have to be recalibrated.” He still favors talks and thinks that the closer Iran gets to a bomb, the more creatively the United States and Israel will start negotiating, but he adds, “Is a deal possible with this new government? I’m just not sure.”)

The good news is that, contrary to the dilemmas of North Korea, time may be on our side in Iran. According to the Washington Post, a new U.S. intelligence review pushes back the date by which Iran might be capable of building A-bombs. An earlier review estimated that the event could happen by the end of this decade; the revision sets the event as the middle of the next decade.

The reason for this revised estimate is unclear. But if it’s correct, this whole issue may be less urgent, in which case why not pursue direct talks with Iran? Military action—say, bombing Iran’s known nuclear sites—is not only a premature but also a shortsighted option. We don’t know where its unknown sites are; the result would set back Iran’s bomb quest by a couple of years at most; the attack would probably stiffen popular support for the Iranian regime (and popular repulsion toward the United States). Meanwhile, also unlike North Korea, the U.N. inspectors still have cameras inside the major reactors, monitoring all activities. Maybe talks will lead somewhere. If they don’t, the world will at least know that we tried. And if at some point action becomes necessary, this will be, politically, an important fact to have established.