Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Pyongyang shows us the limits of anti-proliferation strategies

By George Jahn  /  AP , VIENNA

World failure to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons appears to be a sobering reflection of how threats, cajoling and promises of rewards will not stop a country seeking such arms from acquiring them.

At a quick glance, Pyongyang's example seems applicable to Tehran -- and perhaps other countries waiting in the wings with clandestine nuclear activities yet to be revealed.

Like Iran, North Korea exploited fears of its nuclear ambitions to wrest international concessions. Like the Islamic Republic, it then held the world in the thrall of on-off negotiations before the final steps that many fear Iran will also take -- breaking with the rest of the world to make the bomb.

In apparent confirmation of world fears, North Korea boasted publicly for the first time last Thursday that it has nuclear weapons.

US President George W. Bush has named both North Korea and Iran as part of an "axis of evil," along with prewar Iraq.

But a closer look offers some hope that Iran and other countries that may have the capacity to go nuclear will not automatically follow Pyongyang.

The threat level is one key consideration. For years the Northern regime appeared convinced it was about to become the target of a full US invasion -- or nuclear attack. The country's isolation fed such concerns to the point that Pyongyang tried to justify its move last Thursday by asserting it was only responding to American threats "with a nuclear stick."

A senior official with the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the UN nuclear watchdog kicked out of North Korea two years ago -- said the North's response was typical of a country that "feels it has no choice but to acquire nukes."

"It will only get to that point if it feels totally insecure and without other options," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran is not at that point -- yet.

A regional power of nearly 70 million people, it has no enemy at its doorstep, unlike North Korea, whose army faces hundreds of thousands of South Korean and US troops. Neighboring Iraq, Iran's wartime foe under Saddam Hussein, remains in post-Saddam turmoil.

The threat of attack exists -- both Israel and the US have refused to rule out pre-emptive strikes over fears Iran is trying to develop the bomb.

But that threat would only increase if Iran suddenly broke off negotiations with European powers or contacts with the IAEA and went underground -- as did North Korea. Both the US and Israel would see such a move as further proof that Iran was working on nuclear arms.

Iran insists it does not want the bomb -- and if that's true then it has much to gain by not turning into a hermit country. The talks with Britain, France and Germany could give it things it wants, such as technical help, economic concessions and a greater voice in the world.

But even if Washington is right in accusing Tehran of lying, it appears in Tehran's interest to keep talking. By doing so, it can keep suspicions at bay and the world guessing about its true intentions.

Gary Saymore, director at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, is among those who believe Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. Still, he says it's worthwhile to keep Tehran talking, to win time if for no other reason.

"The Iranians have shown a reluctance to risk confrontation," he said. "They are afraid the big powers will act against them, and ... they are very nervous about possible US attack.

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