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2004 And Beyond: Iran, North Korea Nuclear Crises Still Unresolved

A uranium-conversion facility in Iran Nuclear proliferation was a hot issue in 2004 with world attention focused on suspicions that both Iran and North Korea were secretly pursuing atomic weapons programs. But the crisis over Iran took center stage as a trio of European countries repeatedly sought to persuade Tehran to abandon any plans to become a nuclear power. Meanwhile, the crisis over North Korea got little public attention as regional talks to solve it made no apparent progress.

Prague, 16 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Iran nuclear standoff has entered a suspenseful new stage just as 2004 winds to a close.

This month, Britain, Germany, and France began negotiations that, among other things, look to offer Iran trade incentives in exchange for Tehran giving up activities that could help it develop nuclear weapons.

The European powers have asked Iran to abandon its once clandestine efforts to master the process of uranium enrichment. Those efforts, first exposed by an exiled Iranian opposition group in 2002, worry many governments. That's because low-enriched uranium provides fuel for commercial nuclear reactors -- but highly enriched uranium can be used for making nuclear bombs.

So far, Iran has responded by promising to give up uranium-enrichment activities so long as the talks over a trade deal with Europe continue. That pledge won endorsement for the European approach from the UN's nuclear agency.

Mohammad el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in November that events are going "in the right direction."

"This [suspension] is clearly a positive step in the right direction. It would help mitigate international concern about the nature of the Iranian program and, over time, should help to build confidence with regard to Iran's nuclear program," el-Baradei said.

Still, there is still no certainty the European initiative will solve the Iran nuclear crisis. Similar negotiating arrangements between the European trio and Iran in late 2003 soon fell apart amid disagreements over the terms.

David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, says key issues for next year will be whether the talks can progress and how a skeptical Washington reacts to them.

Albright says that if there is progress, Washington will have to decide whether to join the talks. That's because Tehran is likely to want security assurances from the United States to be part of any "grand bargain."

"The Europeans are moving ahead with negotiations and they are asking the United States for help because they know full well that the main reason Iran is thinking about getting nuclear weapons is because of its fear of the United States. And so if the United States remains outside of these negotiations, then Iran may not have any incentive to change its strategic calculations about why it needs nuclear weapons," Albright said.

However, if there is evidence Iran is not negotiating in good faith, the coming year could see a frustrated Europe move closer to Washington's longstanding position that Tehran will ultimately have to be forced, not persuaded, to abandon its dual-use programs.

Washington has previously called for referring Iran to the UN Security Council for possible discussion of punitive measures, including economic sanctions.

In contrast to Iran, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program saw little change over the past.

U.S. efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons program continued to focus on regional talks involving the two Koreas, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States.

But after two rounds of so-called "six-party" talks in February and June ended inconclusively, North Korea balked at staging another meeting in September.

Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says negotiations have bogged down because Washington and Pyongyang have widely divergent views of what they want.

He says Washington wants full, immediate disarmament by North Korea, which is widely believed to have at least two nuclear weapons.

"The United States is seeking a disarmament agreement that would be modeled on something like the Libya agreement, where North Korea would declare its secret nuclear capabilities and facilities and would disarm them in a fairly short period of time, after which the United States would be prepared to provide substantial economic and political benefits to North Korea," Samore said.

But the analyst says North Korea shows no interest in disarming quickly -- though it is ready to offer small concessions at high prices.

"In contrast, the North Koreans want to retain their existing nuclear capability for the foreseeable future. They are prepared to take step-by-step measures to eliminate or disarm their capabilities but they want to be very handsomely rewarded at every step of the way and for the time being they are not prepared to [fully] disarm," Samore said.

Samore adds that pressure on North Korea to reach a deal has diminished recently as the country's subsistence-level economy has improved slightly thanks to a good harvest.

At the same time, U.S. hopes of pressuring North Korea with regional economic sanctions have run aground over resistance from China. Beijing has good trade ties with Pyongyang and fears any sanctions could lead to instability on the Korean peninsula.

Samore says that U.S. officials are frustrated at their limited options but appear ready to accept, for now, a destitute North Korea with only a limited technical ability to increase its small nuclear arsenal.

The analyst predicts more rounds of six-party talks over the coming months -- but no more progress than in the year just past.