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A year on, Iran, North Korea threats worsen

Both countries have pressed ahead with their nuclear programs, while the U.N. has stuck to sanctions that seem to have little if any effect.
Iran NKorea Growing Threats
In this Nov. 30 photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, Iranian technicians work with foreign colleagues at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, just outside the southern port city of Bushehr, Iran. Mehdi Ghasemi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Another year has passed in the world's standoff with Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons, and the situation has only gotten worse.

Both countries have pressed ahead with their programs, while the U.N. has stuck to sanctions that seem to have little if any effect, and a slew of other countries are now seen as candidates for the nuclear club.

"The world is worse off than a year ago," says Gao Shangtao, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, when asked about Iran and North Korea's defiance.

"They will not give up."

Tensions were already high a year ago. Back then, as the Obama administration was preparing to take office, it heard a chilling assessment from William Perry, President Bill Clinton's defense secretary when the North Korea crisis first blew up in the early 1990s.

"If North Korea and Iran cannot be contained, we face the real danger of a cascade of proliferation of nuclear-armed states," he told a conference on the challenges facing the incoming White House team. "Indeed, I believe that today we are clearly at the tipping point of nuclear proliferation.

Under Barack Obama, Washington has sought to talk directly with both Tehran and Pyongyang — tactics shunned by the Bush administration. The U.N. Security Council has approved a second package of sanctions in response to the North's nuclear defiance and could agree on a fourth set for Iran within months.

But both countries seem impervious.

Inspectors expelled
A year ago, North Korea's negotiations with the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea and Japan were stalled — but the North had at least mothballed its nuclear weapons program and was still discussing dismantling it.

Since then, it has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, restarted its atomic facilities, test-fired ballistic missiles, quit the six-party talks and conducted its second nuclear test.

U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth was in North Korea this week, trying to salvage the talks. He reported no commitments, just "a common understanding" that talks should resume.

Iran, meanwhile, has moved closer to being able to develop nuclear weapons, even while insisting that its atomic program is meant solely to generate energy.

Its thousands of centrifuges have produced enough enriched uranium to produce two nuclear weapons, compared with one a year ago — even though Tehran maintains the stockpile will only be used for nuclear fuel and not for weapons-grade material.

It only belatedly revealed that it is building a second enrichment site and stonewalled an IAEA probe of allegations that it had experimented with making nuclear weapons.

Tehran has threatened to expand its enrichment program tenfold, even while rejecting an IAEA-brokered plan to supply fuel for its research reactor if Iran exports of most of its enriched stockpile.

Playing for time?
On Saturday, Iran's foreign ministers said his country was ready for a swap of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel — the key demand of a U.N.-sponsored initiative to defuse global fears over its nuclear program.

In what is almost certain to be a deal breaker, however, Manouchehr Mottaki spoke of exchanging the material in phases rather than all at once as is called for in the U.N. plan.

Such a staggered swap would leave Iran in control of enough uranium to make a bomb.

A senior Obama administration official said Mottaki's remarks appeared to fall short of demands. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the U.S. has yet to formulate an official response to the development.

Mottaki's remarks were part of a string of conflicting Iranian statements that began with initial word in October that the country would accept the proposal as is. Several Iranian lawmakers later rejected the plan outright and the ensuing volley of various Iranian responses — all via the media instead of the form of an official answer — have strengthened the belief that Iran is simply playing for time.

The U.S. administration has signaled willingness to hold off on further sanctions and wait out the year for Iran to signal readiness to negotiate. Russia has indicated it may support extra sanctions, despite its strategic and economic interests in Iran. China, which previously opposed new sanctions, usually follows the Kremlin's lead on Iran.

Still, neither Moscow nor Beijing is likely to go beyond the present relatively selective and symbolic sanctions and impose crippling penalties such as blocking gasoline exports which Iran needs because its oil-refining capacity is weak.

'Nothing seems to have worked'
In June, after the second North Korean nuclear test, the U.N. strengthened its arms embargo and authorized searches of North Korean ships on the high seas. But Pyongyang shows no sign of buckling.

"Nothing seems to have worked," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The remaining options, he said, are isolation and deterrence until eventually the North Korean system will collapse.'"

For Iran, "threatening military force" may be the way forward, he said.

The Obama administration has not moved away from the Bush administration's position that every option remains on the table to prevent Iran from going nuclear. But such threats come primarily from Israel, which has the Mideast's most formidable military arsenal, including submarines capable of carrying nuclear-tipped missiles.

"The Israelis will not sit idly by" once they decide that diplomacy has failed, warns analyst John Swenson-Wright of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Fears of regional arms race
The fear of a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea propelling regional arms races is also growing.

Japan's advanced civilian nuclear program can easily be retooled to produce weapons, should it lose faith in the U.S. nuclear umbrella. South Korea could follow suit.

"Already, North Korea's nuclear advances have triggered reflections in Seoul, Tokyo, and other regional capitals about options that were previously considered taboo," writes nonproliferation expert Graham Alison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

"Japan has a ready stockpile of nearly 2,000 kilograms (over 4,000 pounds) of highly enriched uranium and a well-developed missile program. ... it could adopt a serious nuclear weapons posture virtually overnight," he writes in the January-February issue of "Foreign Affairs."

Iran's neighbors to the west also are unlikely to tolerate the Islamic republic going nuclear.

"Saudi Arabia, for example, has insisted that it will not accept a future in which Iran ... has nuclear weapons and it does not," writes Alison.

"Egypt and Turkey could also follow in Iran's nuclear footsteps."

Jahn has reported on the Vienna-based IAEA and North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs since 2002. AP writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report from Beijing.