This article was published in Defense News on 23 March 2009.
The world is inching perilously closer to a new chapter in the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Two countries have almost simultaneously hardened their stances in recent weeks, underscoring their ability to achieve breakthroughs in weapon technology.
One is Iran. It consistently denies any intention of possessing nuclear weapons while taking all of the necessary steps toward acquisition. An oil-rich country, it launches a civilian nuclear energy program, then proceeds with uranium enrichment in a manner consistent with a military goal. Most recently, it succeeds in its first ballistic launch of a space satellite.
Once again, Tehran is stone-walling Europeans on accounting for enriched nuclear material. Having emerged as the godfather of radical factions in the Near East, its political hand is strengthened. The risk is that we trade stability and restraint from Iran against our toleration of its declared ballistic program and its undeclared quest for nuclear weapons.
The other country is North Korea – which comes with a twist. While Iran denies any intention of joining the nuclear club, North Korea boasted as early as October 2002 (and prematurely) that it had crossed that threshold. In addition, it has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
After more than a decade of recurring, escalated crises, last May Pyongyang gave Washington an account of its prior nuclear activities via the direct bilateral process it had always sought. But it has yet to commit to ending these activities. And, almost synchronizing with the launch of Iran’s satellite, it is pre-paring a long-range ballistic test.
Today, North Korea bristles with officious confirmations of its status as a nuclear military power, thanks to at least 60 kilograms of reprocessed plutonium acquired during the previous void in international supervision. To avoid a military conflict, international partners may be tempted to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, and to grant new concessions if Pyongyang refrains from further developments. Unsurprisingly, such concessions would focus first on allowing – and even financing, in North Korea’s case – civilian nuclear energy plants. In short, both Iran and North Korea are demanding further nuclear installations as a trade-off against future nuclear restraint. This underscores the importance of discriminating genuine energy users from proliferators among those seeking civilian nuclear energy facilities.
Civilian nuclear energy is fast becoming an inalienable right for non-nuclear states, but this seemingly innocuous quest for nuclear equality remains contradicted by the insufficient level of safeguards against proliferation within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) system.
Both states offer each other implicit support: There is safety in numbers for nuclear proliferators. And both rest their case on an unspoken argument – that the cost of regime change in Iraq has been so high as to render almost implausible any such military action in either North Korea or Iran.
Another similarity is how proliferation would either encourage their neighbors to acquire similar weapons or require the United States to reiterate more convincingly a form of nuclear guarantee to these potential nuclear states.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan may be next, with the NPT becoming merely a grouping of the weak. In both Asia and Europe, developments in theater missile defense would become compulsory in spite of the mistrust they may generate. In short, several chain reactions would be under way.
Historically, Europe has been as active on the issue of Iran as it has been inactive over North Korea. Similarly, Japan has been as demanding on North Korea as it has dragged its feet on Iran. There is somehow a perception that each represents a single case of neighborhood proliferation.
In both cases, the United Nations has at last become involved. It issued a resolution for (mostly) nonbinding sanctions against North Korea in October 2006, and several resolutions for binding, if limited, sanctions against Iran in 2006 and 2007. But while Iran is a far more impressive strategic and diplomatic power than North Korea, it is the latter that has blazed a path of future impunity for all proliferators: expelling international inspectors, withdrawing from the NPT, declaring itself a nuclear power, testing a nuclear device and resuming ballistic testing after an earlier moratorium.
Even in Iran’s case, the results of European coordination have been unconvincing. Europe is tempted to desist or to enter a series of region-based bargains that inevitably would start with an informal decree that Iran is the new pre-eminent power in the Middle East.
Instead, Europeans should view developments in Iran within a global context that includes North Korea. There is no way to stop Iran without reversing the nuclearization of North Korea, a much weaker country. “Global zero” for nukes may be a distracting objective, given the complexity of the existing nuclear club. But global zero for potential new entrants is the only way to hold the line.
We should look at another policy change: reinforcing the IAEA controls and safeguards on civilian nuclear energy. We will only separate the genuine ambitions for nuclear energy of non-nuclear states from the hidden agendas of proliferators if we check more carefully the potential use of civilian nuclear energy facilities to produce military-grade fuel.
The burden, and the cost, will in part fall to the nuclear exporters, and it will probably somewhat diminish the ranks of the buyers. But it is the final finger in the dike of nonproliferation, and an absolute precondition to political isolation of the perpetrators.
Francois Godement is senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, director of the Asian Centre and professor at Sciences Po, Paris.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.