U.S. Diplomacy with N. Korea May Backfire with Iran

President Bush has suggested that the multilateral diplomacy the U.S. used to win a North Korean agreement could work with Iran. But the direct contacts that resulted in North Korea agreeing to disable its nuclear facilities may have taught Iran that if it pursues its nuclear goals with persistence, it will be able to hold on to what it achieves.

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Can this week's progress on the North Korean front suggest a way out of the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities? Pyongyang agreed to a plan to begin disabling its nuclear weapons facilities. It followed years of negotiation and diplomatic maneuvering, and the North's successful explosion of a nuclear device a year ago. There are still profound uncertainties about whether North Korea will ultimately give up the nuclear weapons it has surely stockpiled. But the question of a similar agreement with Iran is still on the minds of many.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: At a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Pennsylvania, President Bush himself hinted the North Korea case might hold some lessons for Iran, despite the provocative statements of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in Mr. Bush's view, his desire to destroy Israel.

GEORGE W: We have made it clear however in spite of that that we're willing to sit down with him so long as he suspends his program, his nuclear weapons program.

SHUSTER: Actually, Mr. Bush took some liberties with his comments here. The U.S. and the U.N. Security Council have demanded that Iran suspend only uranium enrichment - that's a precondition for further negotiations. Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and there is no international consensus that it is. No such disagreement existed over North Korea's goals and intentions.

Nevertheless, even some long-time critics of the administration's policies are praising Mr. Bush this week.

One of them is Joe Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress.

JOE CIRINCIONE: I'm very pleased to see that President Bush is citing the dramatic progress in North Korea as an example of what we might be able to do with Iran. I think he's exactly right. If you can negotiate a deal like this with North Korea, why can't you do the same with Iran?

SHUSTER: Certainly, there are similarities in the two cases. Both North Korea and Iran have felt threatened by the United States. North Korea sought and acquired a nuclear weapon in order to deter U.S. attack. Those in Iran who might favor a nuclear weapons capability could be motivated by the same concern.

Having resisted a face-to-face dialogue with North Korea for years, the Bush administration finally realized that the key to progress was direct talks with Pyongyang. Many are urging the administration to pursue a similar dialogue with Iran.

But John Wolfstall, a specialist on nuclear weapons with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests Iran and North Korea may differ on this.

JOHN WOLFSTALL: North Korea has always wanted direct engagement with the United States, and that was as a major goal of theirs.

SHUSTER: Not so with Iran. At the moment Iran's leaders appear willing but not eager to engage with the U.S., and so far, not willing to agree to U.S. preconditions for talks. It's hard to say what lessons Iran may draw from the North Korean case, in part because it's hard to say just what North Korea will ultimately do. It appears that Pyongyang is willing to see its nuclear facility shut down, possibly disabled, but there are many doubts about whether in the end it will give up the nuclear weapons it has acquired. Therefore, Iran is unlikely to conclude that quick concessions to the U.S. are beneficial, says John Wolfstall.

WOLFSTALL: What is more likely is that Iran is going to draw the lesson that even if the United States says that something is unacceptable as we have with the nuclear North Korea, they may not mean it.

SHUSTER: In fact, Iranian leaders haven't tried to hide their view that the quagmire in Iraq has weakened the United States and made it impossible to use military force against Iran's nuclear facilities. Just as the U.S. made compromises with North Korea, it will soon have to consider compromising with Iran, says Joe Cirincione.

CIRINCIONE: That's the change that President Bush now has to make with Iran. It isn't the multilateralism, it isn't the pressure - it's giving the country a way out.

SHUSTER: Right now, though, Iran seems uninterested in anything the U.S. has to offer.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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