A Nuclear Test for Diplomacy

By Henry A. Kissinger
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The recent letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush needs to be considered on several levels. It can be treated as a ploy to obstruct U.N. Security Council deliberations on Iran's disregard of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This consideration, and the demagogic tone of the letter, merited its rejection by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the first direct approach by an Iranian leader to a U.S. president in more than 25 years may also have intentions beyond the tactical and propagandistic, and its demagoguery may be a way to get the radical part of the Iranian public used to dialogue with the United States. America's challenge is to define its own strategy and purposes regarding the most fateful issue confronting us today.

The world is faced with the nightmarish prospect that nuclear weapons will become a standard part of national armament and wind up in terrorist hands. The negotiations on Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation mark a watershed. A failed diplomacy would leave us with a choice between the use of force or a world where restraint has been eroded by the inability or unwillingness of countries that have the most to lose to restrain defiant fanatics. One need only imagine what would have happened had any of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Istanbul or Bali involved even the crudest nuclear weapon.

Of the two negotiations, the one on Korea -- a six-party forum of Japan, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and North Korea -- seems more advanced than the four-party talk on Iran (among France, Germany, Britain and Iran). Last September an apparent agreement in principle was reached in Beijing that North Korea will give up its nuclear program if the other parties provide adequate assurances of security, economic help in the post-nuclear period and a substitute for the power generation allegedly lost by abandoning the nuclear program. But each side has demanded that the other fulfill all its obligations before it undertakes its own; a serious effort to discuss a concurrent schedule has been prevented by North Korea's tactic of stringing out the period between each session, perhaps to gain time for strengthening its nuclear arsenal.

With respect to Iran, there isn't even a formal agreement on what the objective is. Iran has refused to agree to international control over its uranium enrichment program, in the absence of which no control over a weapons program is meaningful.

The public debate often focuses on whether the United States is prepared to engage in bilateral discussions with North Korea or Iran. With respect to Korea, that is a subsidiary issue. The six-power talks provide adequate opportunity for a bilateral exchange of views. What Pyongyang is attempting to achieve -- and what the Bush administration has rightly resisted -- is a separate negotiation with Washington outside the six-party framework, which would prevent other parties in the Beijing process from undertaking joint responsibilities. If bilateral talks replaced the six-party forum, some of America's present partners might choose to place the onus for breaking every deadlock on Washington, in effect isolating the United States.

The same considerations apply even more strongly to bilateral negotiations with Iran at this stage. Until now formal negotiations have been prevented by the memory of the hostage crisis, Iranian support of terrorist groups and the aggressive rhetoric of the Iranian president. Nor does the Iranian president's letter remove these inhibitions. Nevertheless, on a matter so directly involving its security, the United States should not negotiate through proxies, however closely allied. If America is prepared to negotiate with North Korea over proliferation in the six-party forum, and with Iran in Baghdad over Iraqi security, it must be possible to devise a multilateral venue for nuclear talks with Tehran that would permit the United States to participate -- especially in light of what is at stake.

An indefinite continuation of the stalemate would amount to a de facto acquiescence by the international community in letting new entrants into the nuclear club. In Asia, it would spell the near-certain addition of South Korea and Japan; in the Middle East, countries such as Turkey, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia could enter the field. In such a world, all significant industrial countries would consider nuclear weapons an indispensable status symbol. Radical elements throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere would gain strength from the successful defiance of the major nuclear powers.

The management of a nuclear-armed world would be infinitely more complex than maintaining the deterrent balance of two Cold War superpowers. The various nuclear countries would not only have to maintain deterrent balances with their own adversaries, a process that would not necessarily follow the principles and practices evolved over decades among the existing nuclear states. They would also have the ability and incentives to declare themselves as interested parties in general confrontations. Especially Iran, and eventually other countries of similar orientation, would be able to use nuclear arsenals to protect their revolutionary activities around the world.

There is an argument on behalf of acquiescing in proliferation which holds that new nuclear countries have proved responsible in the past. But this is not endorsed by experience. Pakistan proliferated its nuclear technology through the A.Q. Khan project; North Korea has been an active proliferator. In addition, the safeguarding of nuclear material on the territories of emerging nuclear countries is bound to be more porous and less sophisticated.

Diplomacy needs a new impetus. As a first step, the United States and its negotiating partners need to agree on how much time is available for negotiations. There seems to be general agreement that Pyongyang is producing enough plutonium for several weapons a year; there is some disagreement about progress in producing actual operational weapons in the absence of testing. Estimates on how close Tehran is to producing its first nuclear weapon range from two to 10 years. Given the risks and stakes, this gap needs to be narrowed. Any consideration of diplomatic pace must take account of the fact that in 2008 governments in both Russia and the United States will change; this will impose a hiatus on diplomacy while the governments are preoccupied with transition and, in America, restaffing the executive branch.

The next step is to recognize the difference between multiparty negotiations and a preferred strategy of regime change. There are no governments in the world whose replacement by responsible regimes would contribute more to international peace and security than those governing Pyongyang and Tehran. But none of the participants in the existing or foreseeable forums will support a policy explicitly aiming for regime change. Inevitably, a negotiation on nuclear disarmament will involve compensation in security and economic benefits in return for abandonment of nuclear weapons capabilities and is, in that sense, incompatible with regime change.

Focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearization confuses the issue. The United States should oppose nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran regardless of the government that builds them.

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