The hawks in Washington can point to the fact that the North pursued its weapons program in secret even when it was committed to a deal with the Clinton administration as evidence that Kim Jong-Il is engaged in a game of deception designed to buy time, win concessions and go nuclear anyway. The hardliners have a tougher time, however, selling their own remedy, which involves tightening the economic noose around North Korea in the hope of forcing the collapse of its regime. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld noted Thursday that "I don't think that anyone would characterize the leadership in that country as being restrained," which would suggest that if it does, in fact, have nuclear weapons and has repeatedly used blackmail and brinkmanship as instruments of foreign policy, then trying to slowly starve it to death may not the most rational course of action. And initiating a direct military confrontation remains almost unthinkable, not only because analysts estimate it could cost up to one million lives but also because the government of South Korea would be adamantly opposed.
North Korea's nuclear announcement certainly blindsided Washington, which had hoped to restart the six-party talks next month. U.S. attentions were elsewhere, most notably on stopping Iran from doing what North Korea claims to have done. Frankly, the administration's chances of stopping Iran from joining the expanding club of nuclear-armed states may not be much better than its prospects of holding back North Korea.
On her European tour this week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put forth the idea that Iran now faces a united front of the U.S. and Europe pressing for an end to its uranium enrichment activities. But Dr. Rice may be mistaking the general desire of the Europeans to mend fences with Washington, and their general dismay at the idea of Iran emerging as a nuclear state, as support for the Bush administration's approach to dealing with the problem. That would be wishful thinking, although hardly the first time the Bush administration had been guilty of such miscalculation over matters Middle Eastern. Rice's upbeat assessment requires ignoring the obvious signs that if the U.S. does pursue confrontation with Iran, it will almost certainly do so with even fewer allies than it had over Iraq.
The Europeans certainly don't want Iran to go nuclear, and France, Germany and Britain are leading a diplomatic effort to dissuade Tehran from engaging in uranium-enrichment activities that could be used to build a bomb. Their motivation is not simply because they abhor the emergence of yet another nuclear-armed state in a very unstable part of the world, but also because they fear that the consequences to global security of military action by either the U.S. or Israel to stop Tehran.
The Europeans are pursuing negotiations, but also making clear with increasing urgency that diplomacy can't work unless the U.S. joins the process. But Dr. Rice repeatedly emphasized during her tour that Washington has no intention of joining the diplomatic effort, which is openly scorned by administration hawks. Indeed, even as Rice touted diplomacy, she also gave plenty of hints that her administration prefers the option of regime-change in Iran a position that effectively undermines the European negotiation position. That's because the basis of the diplomatic effort is not a "do as we say or else" ultimatum, but rather to convince the regime in Tehran that it faces no strategic threat to its survival, and can therefore manage fine without nukes and instead enjoy the fruits of reintegration into the international community. By staying out of the process and indicating its preference for regime-change in Tehran, the Bush administration essentially dooms the negotiations to long-term failure, even if they stagger along for months or years. Diplomacy and the pursuit of regime-change simply cannot coexist in a single strategy for very long. The hawks are not unaware of this, of course, they simply believe it's naive to trust any agreement with the Iranians to refrain from doing a North Korea and advocate diplomacy largely as an exercise in building support for tougher action.
The hawks' skepticism of the effectiveness of negotiations in stopping nations going nuclear is not without foundation. In today's geo-strategic reality, there's no good reason why any nation state that has the means to attain nuclear weapons would accept a status quo that nukes them out of its hands, while leaving them in the hands of its enemies. Indeed, the strongest impulse to build nuclear weapons, in Iran, as everywhere else, comes from the fact that its key enemies are nuclear-armed and the resulting belief that a nuclear deterrent is therefore essential to Iran's national security, or at least the security of its regime. Iran's primary enemies Israel and the U.S. have nuclear capability, as does regional rival Pakistan. And the Iranian government is believed to have begun its nuclear quest in earnest during the 1980s, when the country was locked in mortal combat with Iraq and Saddam Hussein had made no secret of his own nuclear ambitions.
Tehran is simply following the strategic logic that drove the proliferation of nuclear weapons over the past half-century: The Soviet Union saw acquiring nuclear weapons as a matter of survival because the U.S. had built and used them to decisively tip the balance in a conventional conflict. France, Britain and later China acquired them because they sought strategic independence from the U.S. and the Soviets respectively. Israel built nukes as the ultimate strategic trump card in the face of the numerical strength of surrounding Arab armies; India pursued them because its prime strategic rival was not Pakistan, but nuclear-armed China; but Pakistan pursued them because its arch-enemy is nuclear-armed India.