Equal Members: The Ayatollahs and the North Koreans in the Nuclear Community

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In a recent speech delivered in Prague, US President Barack Obama indicated that prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially to terrorist networks, will be one of the priorities of his administration. If that is the case, he will have to follow on his promise to sit down on the negotiation table with Iran and North Korea. Otherwise, counter-proliferation efforts will be in vain.

Iran and North Korea are key countries in the international proliferation network. Both of them have advanced WMD and nuclear programmes, and have only reluctantly engaged in multilateral efforts to monitor them.  According to IAEA Secretary General Mohammed El Baradei, Iran has been uncooperative with the agency’s inspectors conducting verification activities of its nuclear activities. In the case of North Korea, inspectors were expelled from the country on April 16. Hence, both countries are being uncooperative with multilateral efforts to verify their nuclear programmes. Knowledge about and control over their respective WMD programmes is feeble as well.

The development of Iran’s nuclear, missile and chemical programmes accelerated in the latter stages of the war with Iraq, which took place between 1980 and 1988. Aware of their country’s military weakness compared with their hostile neighbour, Iranian leaders took the decision to improve their defensive and offensive capabilities. Throughout the 1990s, help from China and Russia, collaboration with the A.Q. Khan clandestine nuclear weapons technology proliferation network, and technology transfers from European companies, allowed Tehran to advance its programmes, train local scientists and develop indigenous know-how on the manufacturing of WMD and nuclear capabilities.

Even though Iran’s programmes first expanded mostly in response to Iraqi hostility, according to the CIA two external and one domestic/regional factor serve to better explain why Tehran continues to develop these programmes today. To begin with, the presence of American military forces in the Persian Gulf is viewed as an existential threat by Iranian leaders. Their fears of an American invasion increased during the George W. Bush administration and especially following the rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces by US troops in March-April 2003. Iranian leaders concluded that possession of a nuclear deterrence was their best guarantee against an American invasion. The election of President Barack Obama will diffuse this fear but is unlikely to eliminate it, given the three decade-old enmity between Washington and Tehran.

In addition, nuclear-armed Israel is also perceived as a threat by Iranian leaders. According to several media reports, in the spring of 2008 Israeli leaders tried to obtain American support for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. On this occasion only the opposition of President Bush prevented this attack from taking place. However, Iranian leaders no doubt wonder whether in the future an American president will authorize such an attack. This is unlikely to be the case under President Obama, but the turn to the right of Israeli politics means that Tel Aviv might as well entertain renewed plans for a surgical strike under a more accommodative American president. Once again, in the eyes of Iranian leaders the development of a nuclear programme is the most sensible option to allay the fears of an attack by foreign forces.

The last important factor shaping Tehran’s decision to continue developing its programmes, especially the nuclear one, is domestic prestige and ideological leadership of the Muslim world. The animosity between Iran’s ayatollahs and Saddam Hussein may have disappeared, but Iran still vies for leadership of the Muslim world, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Possession of nuclear weapons would no doubt increase the regional prestige of Iran while concurrently cementing the grip on power of its leaders, increasingly unable to provide for the well-being of their own population.

In the case of North Korea, its WMD and nuclear programmes date back to the 1950s. Soviet technology and know-how transfers allowed Pyongyang to develop rudimentary programmes, but by the disintegration of the Soviet Union these programmes were still in an early stage. To ensure survival as Communist regimes collapsed elsewhere, North Korean leaders decided to use up to 40 per cent of the country’s GDP on the military. Chief among its priorities, North Korea has been developing ballistic missiles and plutonium and enriched uranium programmes. These two were aided by participation in the A.Q. proliferation network.

Similarly to the case of Iran, external and domestic/regional considerations explain why North Korea is currently pursuing WMD and nuclear programmes. First of all, Pyongyang feels threatened by Washington. Even though North Korea has been pursuing normalization of relations with the US since the 1970s, this is yet to take place. Both countries are still technically at war, and the inclusion of North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’ in January 2002 did not help to build trust. Under the September 2005 and February and October 2007 joint statements of the Six-Party Talks, Washington and Pyongyang are bound to work towards normalization. As long as this does not occur the Kim Jong II regime is unlikely to irreversibly eliminate its nuclear programme. Dismantlement of ballistic missiles is not even under discussion.

Furthermore, North Korea is in a region home to two nuclear weapons’ powers, three countries with the ability to develop them in a matter of months if not weeks, and a substantial number of US military units. North Korea therefore sees acquisition of nuclear weapons as a way to be considered a regional power. Also, as is the case of Tehran, Pyongyang is also unable to provide for its own citizens. Highly-developed WMD and nuclear programmes therefore serve to enhance the domestic standing of North Korean leaders as well.

Iran and North Korea are at the opposite ends of the proliferation network. In the past few years, cash-rich Iran is believed to have imported dual-use technology and weapons-related materials from countries as diverse as China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia. In contrast, cash-strapped North Korea is known to have exported WMD and nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen among Middle Easter countries. North Korean programmes have mostly been developed indigenously and are therefore highly suitable for export. The recent missile or satellite launch was partly to test the latest developments in its missile programme. It is no coincidence that Iranian personnel were witness to the launch.

Talks, negotiations and incentives might not prevent Iran and North Korea from developing full-scale WMD and nuclear weapons programmes. But they probably are the best way to prevent proliferation. Talks and negotiations demonstrate respect for the sovereignty of both countries, allow for better cooperation and understanding, and reduce fears of regime change. Both Iranian ayatollahs and North Korean leaders seek to be accepted as equal members of the international community. They also want peaceful coexistence with the US. Helping them to achieve both seems to be the best counter-proliferation policy available.

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