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The Impact of North Korea’s Nuclear Test on Iran Crisis

Author: Lionel Beehner
October 13, 2006

Introduction

The impact of North Korea’s nuclear test on nonproliferation efforts could extend far beyond East Asia. In particular, it may have major consequences for Iran, whose nuclear program is also the focus of current UN Security Council debate and who could face sanctions if Tehran refuses demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The effectiveness of the multilateral response will depend in great part on how China and Russia respond to the North Korean move. As with Iran, Moscow and Beijing wield significant influence through their veto power on the Security Council; China is also Pyongyang’s chief trade partner. The United States has proposed the Security Council enforce a tough regimen of sanctions, to which the two countries have been historically averse. Tehran is closely watching how Moscow and Beijing react.

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What effect will North Korea’s nuclear test have on negotiations with Iran?

Experts say the nuclear test primarily serves as a distraction that may sideline discussions with Iran. “In the short term, it slows down [the negotiation process] because everyone has other things on their plate,” says Michael A. Levi, a CFR science and technology fellow. “Every day spent talking about North Korea at the United Nations is time they can’t spend on Iran,” says Jon Wolfsthal, an expert on nonproliferation issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But others see opportunity created by the North Korean test. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, says the “unintended consequence” of the test was bringing countries like Russia, China, and Japan together on the North Korean nuclear issue, which he says may rub off on negotiations with Iran. Security Council discussions on both matters are ongoing.

How might North Korea’s actions influence Iranian decision making?

Experts say the Iranians are surely paying attention to what form of action the UN Security Council takes in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test. It remains unclear if the Council will pass a resolution with Chapter VII powers, which allow for punitive sanctions and potential military action, largely because Russia and China historically oppose toughly worded Security Council resolutions. “If we have a strong negative reaction and North Korea is punished, that might influence the Iranians’ thinking,” Wolfsthal says. Ray Takeyh, a CFR senior fellow, tells the Christian Science Monitor that because of the North Korean test, Iran may figure the international community’s determination to confront it is diminished.

Others say the North Korean test strengthens Iran’s bargaining position. “They can legitimately point to the fact that in comparison to North Korea their behavior has been upstanding,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Whereas North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran’s behavior has been less egregious.”  Some experts, including Wolfsthal, say strong coordinated action taken against Pyongyang “could spook Iran to better behave itself.” Others say tough action on Pyongyang might strengthen Tehran’s hard-liners, pushing Tehran to follow North Korea’s lead and ratchet up its nuclear program, the better to deter any future military threat. Worse, Iran may publicly announce its intentions to pursue nuclear weapons and pull out of the NPT.

How will China’s response affect Iran?

If China does not go along with economic sanctions against North Korea, “this will make it doubly difficult for Beijing to rationalize future support for sanctions on Iran,” writes Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, a past adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiators, in the Asia Times. China is in a difficult bind, experts say, because of its close economic ties with Pyongyang and the fact that it supplies North Koreans with food, money, and energy. Beijing does not favor a blockade because it could trigger the collapse of the North Korean regime. “China is obviously upset [by North Korea’s actions], but it sees its relationship with Iran and North Korea as very different from each other,” Levi says. “China is not worried about Iranian refugees crossing its borders.” Also, China holds lucrative oil and natural gas deals with Iran and does not want to jeopardize economic ties to Tehran. On the other hand, a strong sanctions regime against North Korea backed by China might spur Iran to suspend its own nuclear program and reach a compromise.

Is Russia likely to shift its policy on Iran because of North Korea?

It is unlikely, experts say. Russia is on record as supporting a “multilateral” solution to both crises. “Russia has consistently argued that sanctions are unproductive and not expedient to achieving peaceful resolutions,” Sadjadpour says. “Russia will point out that Iran’s case is far less egregious than North Korea’s and may well argue that if [the Security Council] takes a confrontational approach,” then Iran may be prompted to drop out of the NPT. Sadjadpour adds: “China is to North Korea what Russia is to Iran.” Russia has extensive energy and economic contacts with Iran, in contrast to North Korea, where it has minor economic ties. Chief among the Russian projects is the $8 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is nearly complete.

Russia has no interest in other East Asian countries developing nuclear weapons capability, and is likely more willing to act robustly to restrain North Korea. “If there is an arms race that leads to a major expansion of nuclear weaponry [because of North Korea], then Russia would have to react to that,” Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tells the Moscow Times.

What impact will North Korea’s test have on the nonproliferation regime?

Shortly after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “enormous damage has been done to the process of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world.” Some experts say the actions by Pyongyang could trigger a nuclear arms race in East Asia, prompting South Korea or Japan to follow suit. “It is not unreasonable to think states might reevaluate their nuclear options,” says Wolfsthal. “They might think they need to have their own deterrent.”

North Korea’s test may also threaten the viability of the NPT, the bedrock of the nonproliferation regime. “Without doubt, a double proliferation by North Korea and Iran would spell definite doom for the NPT as a whole, opening a Pandora’s box of national security concerns for Iran,” Afrasiabi writes. Charles D. Ferguson, a CFR science and technology fellow, says Iran supports the NPT, of which it is a member (unlike North Korea, which withdrew in 2003), because it provides Tehran with some degree of international legitimacy and, under Article Six, calls for nuclear disarmament of the five major powers and the elimination of fissile materials. The NPT’s Article Seven also coincides with Iran’s efforts to promote a nuclear-free Middle East. “Iran doesn’t want Sunni-dominant Arab states to develop nuclear capabilities or weapons,” Ferguson says.

On the other hand, Pyongyang’s actions could serve as a wake-up call of sorts. “I’d like to think it reinforces efforts by the United States, China, and Russia to get serious about stopping proliferation,” says Wolfsthal.

What is Iran’s relationship with North Korea?

Although they have been grouped together by President Bush as an “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea are not close partners. Iran, however, has bought North Korean weaponry in the past, including Shahab-3 long-range missiles, and Afrasiabi speculates it could purchase more in the future, “in which case its bargaining position in the ongoing negotiations will be somewhat enhanced.” Israeli officials have expressed concern that North Korea could transfer fissile materials and technology to Iran. Experts say their concern may be overblown. “We should keep it on the radar but it’s not terribly likely at this stage,” Ferguson says. “Iran wants its own indigenous capability to make fissile material.” Tehran did not condemn North Korea’s recent nuclear test, instead placing blame on Washington for its regime-change policy vis-à-vis North Korea.

How have negotiations with Iran differed from those with North Korea?

Experts say it is difficult to make comparisons between these two countries’ nuclear talks. North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT, is openly candid about its nuclear intentions, and always has been much further along the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. That is, North Korea emphasizes a plutonium program, while Iran is putting most of its resources into uranium enrichment. Another distinction: Iran claims it is working within the legal framework of the NPT and repeatedly says it seeks nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. The United States has negotiated with North Korea in the framework of Six-Party Talks but refrained from dealing directly with Iran. The lesson learned from negotiations with North Korea, which were successful in putting in place a nuclear freeze for much of the 1990s, says Nicholas Burns, is “we're better off probably trying to strike at these problems diplomatically in the beginning phase, as we are in a relative sense with Iran, rather than ignore them, let them go, or be insufficiently unified so that we can't be effective in blunting them.”

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