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
While the Korean nuclear issue finally took a positive turn, the
Iran nuclear crisis appears heading for
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
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
In fact, the pace of Iran's nuclear development has been picking
up rather than slowing down since the adoption of UN Resolution
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
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
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
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
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
Ruan Zongze is a researcher with the China International
Studies Institute in Beijing.
(China Daily March 2, 2007)