Nuclear nonproliferation: new challenges, old solutions

At a recent meeting in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has re-examined the nuclear issues in North Korea and Iran among other items on its agenda. Once more it concluded that the only way to resolve these issues is through dialogue and cooperation.

Can the issue be wished away with declarations?

Speaking on the North Korea nuclear issue, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano called on North Korea to observe the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and re-establish cooperation with the IAEA.

Huang Wei, deputy Chinese representative to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, has set out his stance on the issue. He believes that all the parties concerned should work jointly to ease the situation on the Korean Peninsula and renew contacts and dialogue between the North and the South. He also expressed the hope that all the parties involved in conflict settlement could create an environment for the resumption of six-party negotiations and work out decisions that would be acceptable for all participants in the process.

Six nations – China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, acting as intermediaries in the settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue – have in turn made a statement emphasizing they are ready to renew diplomatic efforts to address the issue of uranium enrichment in Iran.

Li Sung, deputy head of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China hopes that the IAEA, by acting impartially and objectively as before, will play a constructive role in encouraging the solution of the nuclear issue in Iran.

The Russian representative, Ambassador Berdennikov, underscored that the six countries intend to continue their search for a mechanism of comprehensive and long-term settlement and are committed to restoring the international community’s trust in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, recognizing Iran’s legitimate right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The United States and other Western countries have accused Iran of using its peaceful nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. The UN Security Council has adopted four resolutions on sanctions against Iran.
In response, Iran has declared that its nuclear program was peaceful in nature and focused on meeting domestic energy requirements, and shifted from the defensive to the offensive. Iran’s permanent IAEA representative demanded an investigation into U.S. violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in particular, concerning the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues: An unresolvable conundrum
The underlying challenge to resolving Iran’s nuclear issue is the hostility between the United States and Iran.
Ever since 1979, when the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, the United States has been constantly showing hostility towards Iran and even trying to overturn the Iranian regime. Iran, on the other hand, sees the United States as the main threat to its security.

Following 2003, when the Iranian nuclear issue first appeared, the United States became concerned that a nuclear Iran may pose a threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. At the same time the United States took advantage of the nuclear non-proliferation issue to rally international forces to bring pressure on Iran, as a result of which the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions on sanctions against Iran. The United States also urged its allies to introduce additional unilateral sanctions.

As a result, Iran’s nuclear issue became politically motivated inside the country, and the administration decided not to give up. In addition, starting in 2005, Iran began building up its uranium enrichment capacity: the number of centrifuge devices rose from 600 to 5,000 and the country produced 3.5 metric tons of 3.5% enriched uranium. It cannot be ruled out that this quantity may include some of 20% enriched uranium, too.

Iran’s nuclear issue can be addressed in three ways: through enforcement, by military action, or peacefully.
Enforcement consists of U.S. economic sanctions to exert pressure on Iran and cause resentment among the population to remove the ruling regime, to generate differences between different levels of government officials, to change the attitude to U.S. policy, and, in cooperation with Israel, to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Iran is using the sanctions and negotiations to search for a deal with the United States and at the same time pushes for a speedy implementation of its nuclear program. If the United States and Israel find out that Iran has crossed the “nuclear threshold” while still in the enforcement stage, the possibility of military action and a strike will increase. Economic sanctions against Iran are unlikely to have one definite result, while military moves may lead to a disaster. In reality, Iran’s nuclear issue can be settled only at the negotiating table.

Iran is greatly determined to possess nuclear weapons. It has learned a lesson from the events in Iraq, and it has an even more striking example from North Korea: Saddam Hussein lacked nuclear weapons and ended his life on the gallows, while Kim Jong-il has admitted that he is developing nuclear weapons, and the process has reached the practical stage.

The objective of the six-party mechanism with regard to the Korean nuclear issue was to denuclearize the peninsula. In fact, the non-nuclear North Korea has become a nuclear power.
Nuclear weapons are a political tool for North Korea, a tool to normalize North Korean-U.S. relations, obtain economic benefits, consolidate political power and strengthen its status as a strong power.

“First the offensive then negotiations”: Risk of nuclear proliferation increases

Nearly 190 countries have joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1970, when it came into effect. Non-nuclear weapon states undertook not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment from five nuclear powers – the United States, the USSR (now Russia), the United Kingdom, France and China – to disarm themselves.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has its flaws: every state must allow inspectors to view its nuclear facilities, declare such facilities and programs, and also obtain IAEA licenses and technical support. But if a country has acquired uranium enrichment technology or one to process uranium rods, the treaty has no provision to keep that country from going over to the production of nuclear weapons.

Today, nine states, including North Korea, possess nuclear weapons, with  five of them located in Asia. With the exception of China, four of these countries are not signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty: India, Pakistan and Israel never signed it, while North Korea pulled out of it in 2003. With collective security such a hard goal to achieve, no one wants to be the first to give up the nuclear sword.

In practice, the world has seen a new spiral in the nuclear arms race. North Korea has declared it already possesses nuclear weapons. Iran is within one step of them. South Korea is compulsively eager to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Japan, too, may turn to nuclear weapons as the only means of defense. India and Pakistan, after conducting nuclear tests in May 1998, are setting forth their own terms for joining non-proliferation, acting on the “egg first, chicken next” principle.

Viewing the issue from a short-term perspective makes it clear that the goal of nuclear non-proliferation is beyond reach. Barack Obama’s idea of a “world with zero nuclear weapons” is as realistic as building communism in the near future.

Professor Sheng Shiliang is Chief Researcher with the Center for Global Challenges Studies, Xinhua News Agency

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