Weighing the Nuclear Ambitions of Iran, North Korea

Iran and North Korea are once again signaling the intent to advance their nuclear programs. Iran has threatened to restart a suspended uranium-enrichment program. And U.S. spy satellites detected activity in North Korea that could possibly be preparations for a nuclear test.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Trouble on two nuclear fronts this week. Iran threatened to restart its uranium-enrichment program, which has been suspended since last year after Iran agreed to nuclear talks with Great Britain, France and Germany. Those talks have dragged on without result for many months, and Iranian officials have expressed frustration that they're leading nowhere. Also this week, US spy satellites detected activity at a remote mountain site in North Korea that could be preparation for a nuclear test, according to intelligence analysts. NPR's Mike Shuster has just returned from a visit to Iran. He also covers the North Korean nuclear controversy.

Mike, welcome.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: First, Iran. What's going on with these negotiations? Are they really about to collapse?

SHUSTER: Well, it's hard to say whether they're really about to collapse in part because this is a negotiating technique that the Iranians use constantly. They constantly threaten to walk out of the talks in order to put pressure on, to speed them up, to get more concessions to do better. There have been many meetings between Iranian officials, on the one hand, and officials from Great Britain, France and Germany, on the other, over the last six months. And basically what the Europeans with American backing are trying to convince the Iranians to do is to stop uranium enrichment altogether because they believe the Iranians might use enriched uranium to make bombs. The Iranians have suggested that they might do that, but they want concessions. They want a lot of economic concessions. They want help in joining the World Trade Organization. They want the Europeans to provide them with peaceful nuclear technology. And the Europeans constantly say that there seem to be some progress made. Some Iranian officials agree with them from time to time, but often you hear statements from the Iranians like, `Well, we're not going to let these go on forever. This is going to have to stop unless we get to some end point.'

WERTHEIMER: Mike, what is the mood in Iran in connection with this? Do you think the Iranians really want to have nuclear weapons?

SHUSTER: Many Iranian analysts and most officials say that they don't want nuclear weapons and many in the public say they don't want nuclear weapons, but what they really hate is when outside pressure particularly from the United States comes and says to them, `You can't have this technology.' When you talk to Iranian officials and analysts of all stripes and you ask them, `Well, what kind of a compromise could there be?' the answer you'll get is that, `We are willing to give the rest of the world what they call objective guarantees that they don't divert the enriched uranium for military purposes.' Nobody has been specific on either side about what `objective guarantees' really are, and of course, the Bush administration is highly suspicious of this and does not believe that Iran can be left to enrich uranium.

WERTHEIMER: Now on North Korea, what's the evidence that they may be preparing for nuclear tests?

SHUSTER: Well, from published reports, Linda, we have information from American spy satellites that the North Koreans have been digging in a mountain in northeast North Korea. They dug a big hole and then they filled it up. They're also building what has been described as bleachers or reviewing stands some distance from this. Analysts can't say for sure that this is a nuclear test site, but it's the kind of preparation that specialists say would be done at a place where ultimately a nuclear blast underground might occur.

WERTHEIMER: I hope those bleachers are a long way away.

SHUSTER: You would expect so, and it's an odd detail. Before, some years ago, when the North Koreans did a test launch of a missile, or a longer range missile, they set up a similar reviewing stand apparently. That you can understand, but the notion of setting up a reviewing stand even some distance from a nuclear blast underground seems a little strange.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so why do you think they're doing all of this?

SHUSTER: Well, the talks that the West has engaged in, the United States has engaged in with the support of Japan, South Korea, Russia and China, are stalled for nearly a year. And the Bush administration has been very frustrated that they haven't been able to get the North Koreans back to the table. The North Koreans have also pushed this negotiation very hard. Earlier this year, they declared that they had nuclear weapons. If they were to actually have a test of a nuclear weapon, it would remove ambiguity entirely from the issue, and it would declare to the world that the North Koreans are now a nuclear power to be reckoned with. It would also probably end those talks.

WERTHEIMER: What would the likely fallout be then?

SHUSTER: It would be very complicated. One of the important things is that it would show China that, in fact, North Korea does have nuclear weapons. The Americans have been trying to tell the Chinese that they do and the Chinese have been skeptical. As I said, it might really destroy these talks. It would certainly put pressure on the Bush administration to do something about it. There would have to be talk about a military option, but the first step would be to bring this issue to the UN Security Council.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Shuster. Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Linda.

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