The US is playing a high-risk game of nuclear poker

For Iran and Korea the nuclear option is as much a defence against internal as external threat
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The Independent Online

It's not just in relation to Iraq that the quality of intelligence matters. It's for other conflicts now developing around the world. With Iran and Iraq we already have twin crises whose nuclear implications could dwarf anything that may have been feared in Iraq.

It's not just in relation to Iraq that the quality of intelligence matters. It's for other conflicts now developing around the world. With Iran and Iraq we already have twin crises whose nuclear implications could dwarf anything that may have been feared in Iraq.

The trouble is that, at this moment, we have absolutely no idea just how serious the crises are, or could be. The North Koreans have now claimed to have completed the reprocessing of fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium, with all that this implies for its future nuclear ambitions. We suspect, because it is developing civil nuclear technology in ways that suggest military uses and because it is refusing full co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the Iranians are up to a similar game.

But we don't know that either country actually has a well-developed programme for developing such weapons, or how close they are to perfecting them. It may be all a gigantic game of bluff in the current diplomatic stand-off between the United States and North Korea and Iran. We may have time, in that "lift off" is a few years away (in the view of some experts). Or we may have no time at all, in that, whether or not the countries are close to realising their ambitions, America or Israel are preparing to take pre-emptive action to stop it.

William Perry, who served as the defense secretary under President Clinton, warned grimly yesterday that he now reluctantly believed there would be war between the US and North Korea, and it could be as early as this year. Similar predictions, at least in terms of a pre-emptive strike against nuclear facilities, have been made about Iran.

The danger with this kind of talk is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more the US hawks talk up war, the more urgently Iran and Korea move to gain the weaponry that would deter it, thus confirming the fears and accusations of the warmongers.

And, in a sense, this is exactly what is happening. Behind all the bluster of nuclear threat there is a hard political core to these crises. For both North Korea and Iran the resort to the nuclear option is as much a defence against internal upheaval as external threat.

The North Korean government of Kim Jong II wants outside economic assistance to placate domestic need. By threatening to become a nuclear power it hopes to force America to the aid table. In the same way the Iranian regime fears - with some reason - that it may be next in line on Washington's wish list for regime change. By racing towards nuclear weaponry it hopes to scare America into more co-operative engagement.

For the neo-conservatives in Washington, this is precisely the reason to turn up the heat on these regimes before they really do become nuclear powers in their own right. Inherently unstable themselves and the source of instability to others, the sooner they are brought down the better. Their search for nuclear parity only adds urgency to the task.

For the liberals, however, there is a rationale in the policies of Tehran and Pyongyang best dealt with by dialogue than confrontation. In the end their governments want security. So give them alternatives in aid and recognition and they can be persuaded peaceably to give up their nuclear ambitions.

Intelligence doesn't seem to provide an answer to these questions. And even if it appeared to, it is doubtful, in the light of the Iraqi experience, it could be relied on. Nor does the political debate help much in western capitals, so overlain is it by the argument of who was right in Iraq and how Iran or Korea can be used to prove this debate.

Any sensible political appreciation at this moment would suggest the worst thing the West could do would be to be blackmailed into any precipitate action, either towards war or conciliation. In the final analysis, becoming a nuclear power is not a good option for Iran or North Korea. As the Indian experience has shown, it is a gross diversion of resources and can be easily negated by the threat of countervailing force.

If either country really want to pursue this option it will only unbalance further distorted economies. For the US to embark on another military venture at this time - presumably with British support - carries with it untold ramifications in regional reaction and would serve no useful purpose. Indeed precipitate action may well increase the chances of the greatest fear of all, that weapons of mass destruction would be dispersed into terrorist hands.

But then there is no point either in appearing to give in to threats of nuclear proliferation. It is not the job of the West to prop up discredited - and in the case of North Korea, deeply unpleasant - regimes. Which is why the overriding lesson of the Iranian and Korean crises is of the need for multilateral rather than unilateral action.

The problems posed by the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea are global. There is an international framework for dealing with them in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, and a means of enforcing compliance in the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the UN and regional associations there are also means of offering aid and security. In Iraq, the US tried it alone, with the support of the UK. In Iran and North Korea it needs to come back into the international fold.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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