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2003 & Beyond: Iranian, North Korean Nuclear Crises Remain Open Issues

  • Charles Recknagel

This year saw two major nuclear weapons crises. One, in Iran, found a temporary solution following a showdown between Tehran and the UN's nuclear inspections agency. The other, in North Korea, continues to simmer with no solution in sight.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In 2003, the nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea independently tested the world's ability to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Iranian nuclear crisis was most in the news -- thanks largely to a year-long showdown between Tehran and the UN's nuclear inspections agency. The dispute saw the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demand that Tehran answer numerous questions about its nuclear activities and give inspectors unfettered access to nuclear sites. Both demands were in response to U.S.-led pressure to ensure Iran was not pursuing programs that could lead to the development of a nuclear bomb.

By year's end, Iran dropped its initial reluctance to cooperate and met both demands. In return, the IAEA adopted a resolution that praised Iran's "offer of active cooperation and openness" in the future. At the same time, however, it "strongly" deplored Iran's past secret pursuit of nuclear activities and implicitly threatened to refer any "further serious failures" to the UN Security Council.

IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei called the resolution a victory for nonproliferation:

"I am very pleased with today's resolution. It clearly strengthens my hand in fulfilling our tasks in ensuring that Iran's program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. It again, as I mentioned, strengthens the case of nonproliferation by deploring the breaches, by setting out a marker for what needs to be done in the future," El-Baradei said.

But analysts say the resolution leaves several matters unaddressed, meaning the Iranian nuclear weapons issue will almost certainly be back in the news in the coming year. The most important of these issues is Iran's refusal so far to do more than suspend for an "interim" period its previously secret uranium enrichment activities. Iran's efforts to master the uranium enrichment process worry nonproliferation experts because the technology can equally be applied to producing commercial reactor fuel or creating fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London calls Iran's interim suspension an open question that concerned states will have to address: "It seems to me the more significant open question is whether or not Iran proceeds with its [uranium] enrichment and reprocessing facility, or whether an agreement can be negotiated under which Iran agrees to permanently suspend or abandon those enrichment and reprocessing capabilities."

Iran says it needs a uranium enrichment capability in order to produce its own fuel as it plans to build up to six commercial reactors to generate electricity. A first reactor is currently under construction with Moscow's assistance near the Gulf port of Bushehr but will operate with Russian-supplied fuel.

Samore says Britain, Germany, and France -- which successfully pressed Iran to cooperate with the IAEA this year -- are now also trying to convince Tehran to permanently give up its uranium enrichment efforts in an offer that could spark prolonged negotiations in the coming months. The three European states have said that if Tehran abandons its uranium enrichment program, they could help guarantee Tehran access to Western nuclear power technology. Tehran has yet to respond to that offer.

As Iran's nuclear crisis grabbed headlines throughout the year, so, too, did the nuclear weapons threat from North Korea, although to a lesser extent.

Pyongyang began 2003 by making formal its expulsion just weeks earlier of all international nuclear inspectors from the country. The North Korean government -- already the most politically isolated in the world -- said it was withdrawing from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that provides for IAEA monitors to keep track of nuclear facilities and detect their misuse for weapons programs.

The reaction of Washington and many other countries was one of anger and dismay. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman at the time for U.S. President George W. Bush, said Pyongyang was deliberately provoking the international community.

"I think it is fair to say that North Korea has decided that it wants to stick its finger in the eye of the world. This [withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-ProliferationTreaty] is not an action North Korea has taken vis-a-vis the United States. This is an action North Korea has taken vis-a-vis the world. The world stands united. North Korea stands isolated," Fleischer said.

The North Korean action caused alarm because it came shortly after the U.S. discovered Pyongyang was secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment program for bomb-making. Then, further heightening tensions, Pyongyang announced it was restarting a nuclear reactor previously suspected of being misused to produce plutonium, another route to building a nuclear bomb. That reactor had been closed since a 1994 agreement in which the U.S. and other states agreed to provide North Korea with alternate sources of energy.

The U.S. has long tried to solve the North Korean crisis by exerting regional pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. Those efforts saw the launch this year of so-called Six-Party talks between the two Koreas, the U.S., Russia, China and Japan. But the talks have so far failed to make progress, largely because China -- North Korea's main trading partner -- remains reluctant to threaten Pyongyang with economic sanctions if it does not cooperate.

Still, analysts predict the Six-Party talks will continue in the coming months to represent the main hope for resolving the crisis. Many say it remains unclear whether North Korea -- whose economy is on the verge of collapse -- is seeking nuclear weapons for security reasons or mostly as a bargaining chip to be traded away for greater international security guarantees and financial assistance.

Samore says he expects a continued stalemate in negotiations in 2004: "The Six-Party talks are likely to continue next year because the alternative to talks are not in anybody's interest. For tactical and strategic reasons, I don't think any of the parties want to see a breakdown in the negotiations, which is very likely to lead to greater tensions on the Korean peninsula. So, I would expect that the diplomacy would continue, but I doubt that we will see either a breakdown or a breakthrough next year."

For now, Washington appears to have ruled out military solutions, such as bombing North Korean nuclear facilities, because that could lead to war on the Korean peninsula. But the crisis remains a top international concern.

Pyongyang -- which the U.S. says has previously produced enough plutonium for at least one, possibly two, nuclear weapons -- is widely suspected of using the current stalemate to make further progress in producing fissile material.

And that means that the U.S. and other nations are keenly aware that, unless Pyongyang is stopped, it will only grow more dangerous with time.