Wall Street Journal: While a clear setback in itself, North Korea’s claim of conducting an underground nuclear test could present the Bush administration with much-needed leverage on another challenge: Iran. The Wall Street Journal
By NEIL KING JR. in Washington and BILL SPINDLE in Tehran
October 10, 2006; Page A4
While a clear setback in itself, North Korea’s claim of conducting an underground nuclear test could present the Bush administration with much-needed leverage on another challenge: Iran.
For months, Tehran has rejected international requests to enter discussions on its nuclear program — which it insists is for peaceful purposes — and has declined to suspend nuclear enrichment before even beginning such talks. Pyongyang’s claims of a test Sunday also place it at odds with many in the international community.
Administration officials say they hope North Korea’s action will be a wake-up call to countries such as China and Russia, which have been reluctant to support even mild economic sanctions on Iran for uranium-enrichment work many see as a sign of weapons ambitions.
By the same logic, if North Korea emerges relatively unscathed from the provocative incident, that could further embolden Iran by showing it has little to fear in moving ahead on nuclear development.
U.S. officials say the key barometer in coming days will be how China responds to Pyongyang’s action. Following the announcement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the test “brazen,” a term Chinese diplomats say was meant to show the depths of Beijing’s anger. Yet the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said Chinese President Hu Jintao told Mr. Bush that all countries should “avoid actions that may lead to escalation.”
China hasn’t made clear what measures it may support within the United Nations. U.S. officials hope that Chinese resolve in backing U.N. action on North Korea will bolster the chances for imposing similar measures on Iran.
“All eyes are on China — and then Russia,” a U.S. State Department official said.
The international struggle over both Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs have reached the U.N. Security Council at the same time — a collision of contrasting diplomatic efforts that the U.S. hopes to use to its advantage.
Germany along with the council’s five permanent members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia — decided last week to take up a sanctions resolution on Iran after Tehran turned down an incentives package and refused to give up its enrichment work.
North Korea last year also broke off international talks and turned down various incentives to give up its nuclear program.
The challenge for the U.S. now is to forge a strong international consensus on punitive steps toward North Korea that might spill over into talks later on Iran.
The cases of North Korea and Iran differ in many ways, as do China’s interests in both countries. China long has been a close North Korean ally and economic lifeline. As a neighbor, Beijing fears the chaos of an economic collapse in North Korea at least as much as Pyongyang’s new nuclear status. In Iran, China’s interests are more sharply focused, since Tehran is China’s largest single supplier of oil, accounting for nearly 18% of its oil imports.
The Security Council yesterday began to consider a sanctions package on North Korea that U.S. officials said would seek to block imports of nuclear and weapons technology and restrict a range of financial transactions. The proposed restrictions are very similar to ones the U.S. would like to see incorporated in a first Iran sanctions package.
With North Korea, the Bush administration is going to have to overcome deep concerns in China and South Korea that punitive measures will stir instability in the impoverished and isolated country.
The issues couldn’t be more different in the case of Iran. All members of the Security Council except the U.S. have substantial trade and financial ties with Iran, which is one reason why they have had trouble agreeing on sanctions that would put pressure on Tehran. Sanctions that would really sting, such as blocking oil exports or substantial imports of gasoline, aren’t being discussed.
Most experts believe Iran is several years away from mastering the technology needed to build a nuclear weapon.
Experts and officials inside Iran argue that Iran’s leadership has become more determined not to accede to international demands, which they argue are driven by the U.S. “One of the places we have [internal”> differences over is how to deal with the West, but those differences are fading,” said Kazem Jalali, an Iranian legislator involved in foreign policy.
Iranian state radio responded to the incident by blaming it on the U.S., saying that North Korea was simply responding to the continued pressure of U.S. sanctions. “North Korea’s nuclear test was a reaction to America’s threats and humiliation,” it said. U.S. officials insisted the tricky diplomacy involved in forging an agreement on a North Korea resolution shouldn’t delay work on an Iranian package, which is expected to begin at the end of the week.