For those not familiar, North Korea developed nuclear weapons after it pulled out of the NPT in 2003, tested a weapon in October of 2006, and is currently estimated to have approximately 5 warheads (give or take a few).
The US has engaged in multiparty negotiations with North Korea for the better part of two decades, with progress coming in fits and starts throughout. Though the source for this latest news was particularly vague, it seems that “diplomatic relations” would involve the establishment of a US Embassy with an ambassador in Pyongyang.
I, for one, am encouraged by this revelation. It is a very big deal for a country–any country–to give up nuclear weapons once it obtains them. For North Korea–which is often and accurately referred to as a Stalinist state–relinquishing its nuclear arsenal is no small gesture.
And this is also an interesting case study for those who want to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon.
I’ve often said that North Korea provides a useful model for engaging Iran. This is especially true when it concerns questions along the lines of: “Can a nuclear Iran be deterred?”; “Can negotiations lead to an acceptable agreement on disarmament?”; and “Should talks be given enough time (possibly even years) to succeed?”
But the model only works to a certain extent. I’m definitely not advocating that the US wait until Iran withdraws from the NPT, kicks out inspectors, and develops and tests a nuclear weapon before getting serious about engagement.
Actually, the North Korea model proves once again the need to engage with Iran now. If Iran follows the same path and develops a nuclear weapon, the best the US can hope for is to trade away Iran’s nuclear arsenal in just the same way as this news account suggests.
So if we’re eventually going to be forced to deal with a nuclear Iran, and if we’re in the position to provide Iran with enough incentives today to talk them down from the nuclear ledge, why would we wait? Waiting to deal only accomplishes the following:
- Furthering illicit nuclear proliferation, doing irreparable harm to the global nonproliferation regime
- Threatening regional stability in the Middle East and risking setting off a regional nuclear arms race
- Postponing an eventual agreement, during which time an accidental skirmish either in the Strait of Hormuz or on the Iraq-Iran border could lead to full-scale military conflict
So let’s recap:
We could keep threatening Iran with sanctions, blockades, and war until Tehran decides to develop a nuclear weapon, after which we’ll be forced to come to the table and make a deal–that is, of course, assuming there isn’t a freak accident that leads to a nuclear detonation and full-scale nuclear war.
We could negotiate today and take our chances with diplomacy which, incidentally, poses no risk of killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Tough call…