Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Nuclear Breakthroughs Are Less Than Meets the Eye

The past few days have been good to people who favor negotiated solutions to nuclear proliferation. In Thailand this week to attend an Asian economic summit, President Bush announced his willingness to give North Korea a security guarantee if Pyongyang scraps its nuclear weapons program. In Tehran on Tuesday, meanwhile, the British, French, and German foreign ministers reached a deal to gain Iran’s acceptance of tough international inspections and a suspension of its uranium enrichment activities.

These developments are both somewhat positive steps, but they are also both far less promising than they might seem. Bush’s flexibility on North Korea, coming after months of refusing to address Pyongyang’s security concerns, is welcome—a negotiated solution to North Korean nukes will never be possible without American willingness to make concessions. But the substance of the American proposal—a multilateral security pact, rather than a bilateral deal—may simply produce divisions among American allies rather than concessions from Pyongyang. That’s because Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo have differing attitudes toward a nonaggression agreement. China has been pushing from the start for the United States to offer a security guarantee in exchange for North Korean denuclearization. But Japan, which worries more about a North Korean attack than China does, has been less enthusiastic. By insisting on a multilateral security guarantee, then, Washington may simply be shifting the burden of arguing against an agreement from itself to Tokyo, and allowing Japan to tie up the process.

Even if China, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and the United States can agree on a common position on a security guarantee for North Korea, there’s little reason to believe that Pyongyang will be interested. Pyongyang wants a bilateral deal with Washington because it believes this would better address its security concerns, and because it wants American recognition. A multilateral nonaggression pledge could allay fears of attack, but it would do little to satisfy Pyongyang’s desire for direct American engagement. The White House is likely to argue that if Pyongyang rejects the new overture, American allies should shift to a more aggressive policy, including using U.N. resolutions to sanction the North. But until the United States has exhausted all its diplomatic options—including an offer of a bilateral security guarantee—its allies are likely to be skeptical of its good intentions.

Then there’s Iran. In August, Britain, France, and Germany offered Iran economic engagement in exchange for nuclear cooperation. The Europeans requested that Iran sign an Additional Protocol, which would have expanded inspections and forced it to dismantle its uranium enrichment program, which has the potential to produce several nuclear bombs per year. The European initiative was on the right track, making tough demands while offering carrots as well as threatening sticks. But the specific deal finally inked in Tehran on Tuesday is far from perfect. While it commits Iran to immediately implementing the Additional Protocol, the version of the protocol agreed to only obligates Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, not to terminate it permanently.

The importance of this difference cannot be overstated. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier asked Iran to suspend its enrichment activities, the agency understood that this offered little direct protection against nuclear proliferation. Instead, the halt was sought as a means to aid inspectors, who were attempting to determine the origin of bomb-grade uranium found at Iran’s Natanz enrichment site. By continuing with enrichment, Iran was potentially contaminating the IAEA’s uranium samples, making it harder to assess Iran’s past noncompliance.

Iran’s current enrichment activities—purifying uranium for fuel—were never a direct proliferation concern; the fuel that Iran is producing cannot be used in bombs. Instead, it is Iran’s equipment itself that presents a proliferation problem, since that equipment can be quickly reconfigured to produce bomb-grade uranium. Unless the enrichment facilities are dismantled, as requested in the initial European overture, Iran will be no further away from being able to make bombs than it would have been had no deal been made.

But Iran is taking no such steps. As Iran’s chief negotiator commented after the deal was reached, the enrichment pause “could last for one day or one year, it depends on us.” He added, “As long as Iran thinks this suspension is beneficial it will continue, and whenever we don’t want it we will end it.”

If the United States wants to push the European initiative in the right direction, it will need to get more intimately involved in the Iran process. This would mean giving up its insistence on merely issuing threats, and attempting to engage with Iran on occasion. The White House’s new overture toward North Korea may be a sign that a more constructive approach toward Iran is possible too, but this is still far from certain. And time is not on Washington’s side.

Get daily updates from Brookings