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What We've Learned from Latest Nuclear Crises
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By Ruan Zongze

February saw dramatically good news and bad news for the world's nuclear crisis hot spots: North Korea and Iran.

On February 13, the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue concluded with the signing of a joint document that was billed as a major breakthrough in the protracted heady process.

It jump-started the process to implement the September 19 Joint Communiqu, which spells out the steps toward actual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

All parties committed to this endeavor have agreed to move forward with the principle of "action for action" at the initial stage, including North Korea "shutting down and sealing" its key nuclear facility; other countries providing economic, energy and humanitarian aid to North Korea; and establishing working groups to resolve the Korean nuclear issue and form a Northeast Asian peace and security mechanism to realize the aspirations expressed in the Joint Communiqu step by step.

On February 23, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said North Korean government had invited him to visit Pyongyang.

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the move a "good start" on North Korea's part, saying he believed it would positively affect the implementation of the joint document.

The United States also welcomed the latest North Korea gesture, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the US was happy with this development and thought it was a good signal. North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan will discuss bilateral issues with his US counterpart this weekend in New York.

While the Korean nuclear issue finally took a positive turn, the Iran nuclear crisis appears heading for escalation.

On February 22, ElBaradei released a report on Iran's lack of compliance with relevant UN resolutions, saying Teheran not only ignored UN Resolution 1737 demanding the freezing of its nuclear program, but also stepped up its uranium enrichment efforts by adding several hundred more high-speed centrifuges to increase production capacity.

Ban also expressed his dismay, saying he was deeply troubled by Iran's failure to stop its uranium enrichment plan before the deadline set by the UN Security Council.

Iran says the goal of its nuclear program is self-reliance in related technology and it is at a critical stage in the current upgrading plan. That is Teheran's reason for going ahead despite worldwide calls for a halt to such steps as adding more high-speed centrifuges.

In fact, the pace of Iran's nuclear development has been picking up rather than slowing down since the adoption of UN Resolution 1737.

Iran regards its nuclear program as a key symbol of its resolve to regain major power status. Its dogged pursuit of this goal has experienced numerous ups and downs, resurfacing in different forms in different eras.

Iran's nuclear program is also a result of the changing world. During the Cold War, major power rivalry could be seen behind almost all international conflicts as many countries sought to protect their own interests by leaning on the US or the Soviet Union.

With the end of the Cold War, the medium-sized and small countries have had to face all kinds of challenges directly, especially in efforts to secure their national interests, as major power wrestling fizzled out. Some of them chose to build self-esteem by acquiring nuclear capability. At the same time, some countries' double standard on nuclear arms has also played a part in wrecking international non-proliferation efforts.
On February 24, US Vice-President Dick Cheney said that the US and its allies were willing to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program. But he also said "all options are on the table" for the US to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, indicating Washington would not rule out the possibility of using military force against Iran.

His words were enhanced by the presence of a US aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS John C. Stennis that arrived in the Persian Gulf on February 20. It joined the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group already deployed there.

At the same time as Cheney's remarks, US media reported that the Pentagon had formed a response group to deal with the Iran nuclear buildup to guarantee execution of a military attack against Iran within 24 hours of a presidential order.

Iran soon came back with something similar to US President George W. Bush's memorable phrase "Bring it on!"

According to Iranian press reports, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech on February 25 that Iran's nuclear development plan would never give way to Western pressure. Responding to Ahmadinejad's description of the plan as a runaway train with "no break and no reverse gear", Rice said Iran needed a stop button.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki claimed on another occasion that the US was not capable of launching military action against Iran at the moment.

The next step in US policy on Iran would be to exert more pressure on Teheran through political, economic and military means. Politically, the US would seek to pressure Iran by fanning international condemnation through such world bodies as the IAEA and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the 5+1 mechanism).

Economically, Washington would tighten financial sanctions against Iran to discourage foreign investment in the Islamic Republic in a bid to shake Iran's pillar energy industry.

And militarily, more movements of US forces would be seen around the Persian Gulf with occasional vocal threats to the tune of "all options are on the table". But by all indications the US is not ready to fire the first shot at this time.

On the other hand, the nuclear issue is but another excuse for the US to confront Iran more loudly. Washington has been repeatedly accusing Iran of interference in Iraqi internal affairs, saying an Iranian military elite force recently masterminded several bomb attacks in Iraq that killed 170 US soldiers.

The US also hopes to trigger changes in Iran and undermine Ahmadinejad's authority by increasing pressure on Teheran through international sanctions.

Washington has put aside special funds to support the so-called democrats in Iran as inside men against Ahmadinejad.

Both the Korean Peninsula and Iranian nuclear issues involve multiple conflicts of interest jostling for attention.

Yet the Korean nuclear crisis finally shows some hope of moving toward a peaceful solution. At least the military tension has been reduced significantly.

The improving Korean nuclear issue offers two factors worthy of consideration: One is to fully utilize the multi-party negotiation mechanism, as illustrated by the decisive role played by the six-party talks to achieve the recent soft landing.

The Iranian nuclear issue involves the 5+1 mechanism, which differs from the six-party talks. North Korea is one of the six parties, whereas the 5+1 format does not include Iran. It is necessary to have Iran on board, but a lot of hard thinking is necessary to find the best way to turn 5+1 into 5+2.

The other factor is that close contact between the US and \North Korea played a key role in achieving the latest progress on the Korean nuclear issue. The US previously shied away from direct contacts with North Korea, but facts have changed the administration's stance. The change shows that it is just as important to create the right conditions and atmosphere for the US and Iran to talk face to face.

To sum up, it is the willingness of all parties concerned to seek a solution through the six-party talks channel that helped the process continue through so many twists and turns.

At a moment when both the US and Iran have raised the volume of war cries with the possibility of another war in the Persian Gulf, people are desperately hoping that political wisdom will turn the situation around before it's too late to bring peace back to the region.

Ruan Zongze is a researcher with the China International Studies Institute in Beijing.

(China Daily March 2, 2007)

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