How Not to Handle
Iran’s Nuke Aspirations

by , October 13, 2006

The nuclear test by North Korea has created a major tremor among Bush administration officials and the Democrats. The brunt of the debate is whether the Bush administration or the Clinton administration is responsible for Kim Jong-Il’s latest move. Sen. Hillary Clinton has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Bush regime, which in turn blames its predecessor. While Washington is notorious for this type of absurdity, few people are paying attention to how to avoid the similar mistakes regarding Iran’s alleged aspirations to develop nuclear weapons.

It should be established that Iran has insisted that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and that its uranium-enrichment program is aimed solely toward the peaceful use of nuclear energy. To the U.S., however, that claim is as credible as India’s claim of “peaceful nuclear explosions” (PNE), which lasted from 1972-1998, when India conducted nuclear tests and became a declared nuclear power. The American suspicion of Iran is genuine, since Iran might be contemplating the development of nuclear weapons for a number of reasons.

First, it has been identified by President Bush as one of the members of the “axis of evil.” Another member of that category, Iraq, became a victim of the Bush doctrine of regime change. The second member of that alleged axis, North Korea, is well on its way to becoming a nuclear power.

Second, unless the United States renounces the Bush doctrine, Iran has every reason to take all measures to safeguard its regime from becoming another victim of U.S. military invasion.

Third, Iran is surrounded on the east (Afghanistan) and on the west (Iraq) by U.S. forces, which is a source of constant fear for Iran’s leaders.

Finally, both the U.S. and Israel have indicated on a number of occasions that the use of force against Iranian nuclear facilities is a legitimate and likely option.

So Iran, like North Korea, has every reason to contemplate relying on its own nuclear option to deter the United States from attacking it. The fact that the Bush administration has been “giving diplomacy a chance” in the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear explosion is just another indication to the Iranian leaders that, under the proper circumstances, if their country were to acquire nuclear weapons, there is a decent chance that the U.S would willy-nilly accept it as a nuclear power.

Iran, like North Korea, has a highly proactive ballistic and cruise missile development program. So, the United States has every reason to believe that Iran, in reality, harbors aspirations to develop nuclear weapons and should not be given the benefit of the doubt.

Iran’s government, unlike North Korea’s, has called for Israel’s regime to be “wiped off the map.” No matter how foolish and unrealistic such rhetoric was, its very use on more than one occasion makes Iran a visible threat to regional peace in the eyes of the international community, and a country that should never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

Despite these intricacies involving Iran and its alleged aspirations to develop nuclear weapons, what is important for the United States is to see, forthwith, that it should not make two major mistakes that it made on the nuclear issue regarding its long-standing conflict with North Korea.

The first was refusing to pick up the ball in 2001 and continue negotiating with Kim Jong-Il where the Clinton administration left off.

Granted, North Korea had every intention of cheating, or at least not living up to all its commitments made during the Clinton administration. However, the Bush officials had the great example of Ronald Reagan to follow in his nuclear-arms negotiations with the former Soviet Union. Reagan’s famous adage was “trust but verify.”

The Bush administration could have used a modified version of that, such as “Don’t trust, but continue to negotiate and, most important, verify.” However, by refusing to negotiate with Kim Jong-Il’s regime because it was “immoral” and “evil,” the current administration intensified the paranoia of the ruler of North Korea. It should be stated explicitly that Bush’s refusal to negotiate was not the only reason for the hermit regime’s emergence as a nuclear power. However, President Bush’s admission to Bob Woodward in 2002 – “I loathe Kim Jong Il. I got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps – they’re huge – that he uses to break up families and to torture people” – provided additional reason for the North Korean dictator to fear the American president.

When such statements are read in light of the doctrine of preemption, Bush was clearly signaling North Korea that regime change was a viable option during his presidency. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kim Jong-Il had no doubts whatsoever that a similar fate might await him. He became more determined than before to develop nuclear weapons of his own as the ultimate guarantee against potential American military adventurism.

The second major mistake was not engaging North Korea on a bilateral basis. Even today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounds unconvincing when she explains why the U.S. refused to deal with Pyongyang bilaterally. In an interview on Fox News on Oct. 10, 2006, she said that North Korea insists on bilateral talks with the U.S.

“because they would like to be back in the situation that they were in 1994, and in the ’90s, where it was a bilateral issue between the United States and North Korea. So that when they cheated on the agreement that they had signed, it was cheating on the United States. It was not cheating on China. It was not cheating on Japan, not on South Korea. What the North Koreans have sought to avoid is to be in a situation in which all of the interested parties with all of the leverage are all parties to the agreement. And when the North Koreans act badly, they get the kind of reaction that they got today from their most important partners, like China and like South Korea.”

One can spin the reasons for not negotiating with North Korea bilaterally, but the fact is that the chief threat to its security – as the North Korean regime sees it – is President Bush’s predilection for regime change. Thus, the country that is of utmost concern and interest to Pyongyang is the lone superpower. It is possible – even though at this stage of the game it seems unlikely – that North Korea might still be persuaded to unravel its nuclear weapons program. However, the only country that can talk North Korea out of it is the United States. A security guarantee should be backed up by the other members of the Six-Party Talks (South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia).

To avoid a similar situation in the Middle East, the U.S. must engage Iran forthwith on a bilateral basis. The five-plus-one (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) dialogue may continue. But what Iran wants – like North Korea – is to engage the Bush administration and extract ironclad security guarantees. Once such a security package is fully negotiated, the rest of the parties to the five-plus-one dialogue should become signatories to it.

Secondly, the security guarantees to Iran must include nullification of all legislation that even remotely suggests the possibility of regime change. This includes ending contact with Reza Pahlavi, son of the former shah, who has cloaked himself in the shroud of “constitutional monarchy” as an alternative model of government for Iran. The return of the monarchy is a fiction only American neocons and Iranian expatriates believe possible.

The most significant lesson from the North Korean imbroglio is that the United States should take all diplomatic endeavors to soothe the legitimate security-related concerns and fears of the current Iranian government. It should know by now that expressions of “loathing” only underscore the fear among Iran’s leaders that the Bush administration will invade. In such a frame of mind, the Iranian government will do everything to develop the ultimate deterrent, which worked quite well in keeping the two superpowers from striking each other and their allies and proxies during the Cold War. Since Iran, like North Korea, does not have a nuclear superpower guaranteeing the survival of its government at the present time, it may eventually develop nuclear weapons. The time is now for the United States to do all it can to assuage Iran’s anxieties, and to do so earnestly.

Read more by Ehsan Ahrari