Radio Farda: What would be the impact of North Korea’s nuclear test on Iran? Do you think it could make Iran bolder?
David Albright: Yes, Iran could be emboldened by this because of two things. One is that the sanctions imposed on North Korea are not that stringent. So, if the sanctions for a nuclear test are like that, then the sanctions on Iran will be even less, more than likely. The sanctions are not going to be anywhere near approaching the level that would hurt Iran economically. That would be a reasonable conclusion for Iran.
The other is that the North Koreans may get away with it. That is yet to be determined, but the international coalition may lose its way and you may see China and South Korea deciding that they'd rather not enforce sanctions than contribute to North Korea's collapse. I think that part of that is that China and South Korea will probably remain suspicious that what the U.S. is really about is regime change and if the regime changes, China and South Korea would be the ones who would have to deal with the consequences. You'd have another pre-Iraq situation that launches ahead without thinking through the consequences. Because in North Korea, you could end up with a worse dictator, a more unstable one. Or you could just have a general collapse, lots of refugees, and a tremendous burden put on South Korea and China to pick up the pieces. It would make the reunification of Germany look like a picnic, which it certainly wasn't.
Iran sees where countries who at first are firm decide that their own interests would say, "Go along at first, but undermine later." And they may figure that a constellation of countries -- including China -- would do the same with respect to Iran. So, in a sense, Iran would get away with it too and just kind of hunker down to survive the initial sanctions.
Radio Farda: Given the fact that the 1994 agreement with North Korea failed and it did not stop North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, do you agree with those who say possible U.S.-Iran negotiations could end up the same way?
Albright: Well, one is that the North Korean program was stopped for years. There is no one that can dispute that. There was an agreed framework to stop plutonium production and it did for years.
Radio Farda: But it wasn’t under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard agreements....
Albright: It wasn't safeguards, but it was monitored. One of the weaknesses of the agreed framework was that they suspended verification or safeguards by the IAEA pending a later point, which was never reached. I think a lot of the criticism and sniping at the Clinton administration is kind of petty and political. What is it, six years into the Bush administration? How long can they blame Clinton for the problems they are facing? It is a little ridiculous to even raise it, but it is a political season here, so they do.
But I think the lesson Iran is learning -- and this is a sad lesson -- is that North Korea probably feels some assurance it won't be attacked because it has nuclear weapons. And Iran probably feels more vulnerable without nuclear weapons than with nuclear weapons. So I think Iran may be looking at that and wondering, why not just push ahead?
Radio Farda: So you think it would be a reasonable strategy to give Iran a security guarantee and even improve the incentives package?
Albright: I think it is. We've written that [it would be good to] increase the number of incentives that have a quick turnaround and give a security guarantee. It would cost the United States almost nothing. But again it raises the issue -- is the purpose of the United States regime change or finding a settlement? And you can't tell. That's really for me the problem. And it creates a lot of suspicion among other countries, particularly when it is countries like Russia and China. You know -- just what is the U.S. up to? Are we on a slippery slope?
And, so, there is hesitation to move forward and, if you don't move forward and create a strong punitive regime, then the target country thinks they are getting away with it. So it is really a terrible dilemma, and I find that over and over again the United States is the leader and should finding a solution to this that meets and serves U.S. interests -- and the United States is not leading; it is reacting. And it attempts to react in one way -- when someone acts bad, you want to punish -- rather than thinking that these are states; they are not children. And you need to have a diplomatic approach that combines punishments and incentives and you have to have to understand that the point of this is agreement, not regime change. But I just don't think they [the Bush administration] believe that. I'm not sure what they believe -- that's the other thing.
Radio Farda: What would be the extent of the possible proliferation caused by North Korean nuclear test?
Albright: I don't think North Korea -- and this is a very big difference with Iran -- North Korea isn't threatening its neighbors. It doesn't have regional ambitions. It is not engaged in any sort of regional politics. It is a weak state among giants.
Radio Farda: So you consider the danger of proliferation caused by Iran’s nuclear program is greater than North Korea’s nuclear test, despite the fact that with tons of plutonium, Japan is only months away from producing nuclear weapon?
Albright: It will depend on how it plays out over the years and on what the U.S. does. The U.S. may have to given more and more transparent or clear security guarantees to Japan, including possibly it could end up that we station nuclear weapons in Japan. It just depends on how North Korea reacts: does it just hunker down now and build a nuclear arsenal and deploy nuclear-tipped missiles? That will upset Japan and they'll want a stronger deterrent.
But I think that [Iran] is a different situation, because if Iran goes nuclear, then you have Israel freaking out and probably becoming more assertive. You may have Egypt worrying about its own prestige. I think that in the Middle East you have powers that are all sort of roughly the same, and they are competing for regional influence. Whereas in North Asia, you know -- China does not fear North Korea; Russia does not fear North Korea. Finally, Japan just feels vulnerable because if the United States is going to be threatened by North Korea, then North Korea has to be able to drop a nuclear weapon on U.S. assets in Japan. And so that's their problem -- that they are the target of North Korean nuclear weapons and they don't like that. That could drive them to get nuclear weapons if they can't deter North Korea through other means -- either through the U.S. security umbrella or through conventional means, which I'm sure they are going to increase.
So, I don't see [the threat of proliferation] as dire and I think you can solve it in North Korea because I think you can tip the scales back in North Korea to the side that is willing to trade away its nuclear-weapons program. Right now, it is tipped the other way -- they want nuclear weapons. This is not about bargaining; this is about getting nuclear weapons. But I think you can go back the other way.
A control panel at the Bushehr nuclear power plant (Fars)
CASCADES AND CENTRIFUGES: Experts and pundits alike continue to debate the goals and status of Iran's nuclear program. It remains unclear whether the program is, as Tehran insists, a purely peaceful enegy project or, as the United States claims, part of an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
On June 7, 2006, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden to help sort through some of the technical issues involved. "[Natanz] will be quite a large plant," Kile said. "There will be about 50,000 centrifuges and how much enriched uranium that can produce [is] hard to say because the efficiency of the centrifuges is not really known yet. But it would clearly be enough to be able to produce enough [highly-enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, if that's the route that they chose to go...." (more)