North Korea, Iran Watching U.S. Nuclear Tactics

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Talks with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear ambitions are at a standstill. So far, both countries have maneuvered to avoid concessions that might end their nuclear programs. It appears that both are watching how Washington handles these cases and may tailor their tactics accordingly.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Along with Iraq, Iran and North Korea are at the top of the US foreign policy agenda. But negotiations with those countries are at a standstill, and North Korea and Iran have been able to avoid making concessions that might lead to their giving up their nuclear programs. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, they're both tailoring their tactics to US policy.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

It's not that North Korea and Iran are suspected of actually sitting down together to plan how to handle the Bush administration. There's no evidence of that. But they are well aware of the progress in each case, says Robert Einhorn, a nuclear proliferation expert at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. ROBERT EINHORN (Nuclear Proliferation Expert, The Center for Strategic and International Studies): I doubt very much that they are discussing tactics jointly, that they're collaborating in any way. But I think they recognize that what happens in one negotiation has implications for their own negotiation.

SHUSTER: Mitchell Reiss agrees. Reiss is a former director of policy planning at the State Department, now vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Mr. MITCHELL REISS (Vice Provost for International Affairs, College of William and Mary): Tactically, I'm not sure that it's a day-to-day thing that they see each other and can inform each other's behavior. But I think the general tactical approach that each one's taking probably gives them a pretty good sense of confidence that they're on the right path.

SHUSTER: The right path, meaning doing everything they can to stymie the efforts of the United States to block their acquisition of nuclear weapons. North Korea may already have as many as half a dozen nuclear bombs and continues to manufacture plutonium for more. Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, but its nuclear program was developed in secret over the past two decades, and Tehran is insisting it has the right to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel and power reactors. Enrichment could also provide Iran with the key element in a nuclear bomb. There certainly is evidence that Iran keeps close track of the negotiations with North Korea. Those talks also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Iranian officials have said publicly that the US threat of force against North Korea hasn't worked, notes Joe Cirincione, director of the proliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. JOE CIRINCIONE (Director of Proliferation Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): They also draw the lesson that after two years of trying to get North Korea to back off from its program, the result is that the countries have accepted North Korea's program, are getting to learn to live with it. That, they said, is what they should do with Iran. They should learn to live with Iran's program.

SHUSTER: But this administration expected its invasion of Iraq, premised on the presence of weapons of mass destruction there, to be the decisive factor in persuading both North Korea and Iran to forsake their nuclear ambitions. The idea was that Tehran and Pyongyang would fear they might become the next target of American military action, says Joe Cirincione.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: Unfortunately, it's backfired. Both Iran and North Korea seem to have accelerated their programs since the Iraq War began, seem to have hardened their positions.

SHUSTER: Both appear to have benefited from US troubles in Iraq, especially from what turned out to be false American intelligence that Iraq maintained an arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. President Bush recently acknowledged that those false claims have had an effect on the Iranian nuclear issue. North Korea and Iran may have genuinely feared the possibility of an American attack soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but they don't any longer, says Robert Einhorn.

Mr. EINHORN: I think as time passed and the US got bogged down in Iraq, they began to conclude that they didn't have to worry; at least they didn't have to worry about American military pressure against them.

SHUSTER: So, says Joe Cirincione, that has only emboldened both Pyongyang and Tehran to resist international pressures.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: They're both playing for time. They seem to have concluded that for whatever reason, the US is not going to take military action against them and that they get stronger as time goes on while the US gets weaker.

SHUSTER: That weakness is reflected in the current state of negotiations with both North Korea and Iran. The six-party talks with North Korea have stalled. Former State Department official Mitchell Reiss says that despite ongoing disagreements within the administration over the value of these negotiations, the US will continue talking with the North Koreans.

Mr. REISS: Sure, we have said some things that might have offended them. There may have been some missteps along the way. But the fundamental point is that we're ready, as are the other four members of the six-party talks, to meet with the North Koreans anytime they want in Beijing. They're the ones that are withholding their consent to doing that.

SHUSTER: Iran has recently restarted its stalled talks with Great Britain, France and Germany. The Europeans, with US backing, are encouraged by a recent Russian proposal to build a uranium enrichment facility for Iran in Russia that would provide Iran with all the nuclear fuel it might need for civilian power plants but prevent it from using the process to make bombs. Just today, a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying, "Tehran will take a serious look at that proposal." Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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