Iran and North Korea seem determined to build up arsenals of nuclear weapons. Can they be stopped?
The inspectors were invited in to watch. Then, wielding simple wire cutters, Iranian technicians snipped off 52 brass seals, each having a unique numerical code and markings. By that act of defiance at three nuclear sites last week, Iran showed its determination to restart nuclear research barred under a deal it had signed--and a willingness to risk a collision with countries led by the United States that aim to deny it the means to build atomic bombs.
With the Bush administration still preoccupied with stabilizing Iraq, it was an unmistakable sign that bona fide nuclear challenges elsewhere--Iran, and also North Korea--will not just wait their turn. And challenges they are. Diplomacy faces an uphill slog, and the military options remain lousy. Further, President Bush, proved wrong on Iraqi weapons intelligence, will have to overcome a general weariness abroad with confronting more rogue states. Call it "confrontation fatigue," if you like; both Iran and North Korea seem primed to exploit it.
The Iranian move breaks a pact with European governments aimed at buying time to negotiate a permanent ban on the fuel enrichment and reprocessing work that could produce the Bomb. Iran's new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is proving alarming in other ways, too. He calls the Holocaust a "myth"and says Israel should be "wiped off the map." His invectives--along with rumbles that Israel may feel compelled to stage a pre-emptive military strike against the nuclear facilities--have prodded several European and Asian countries closer to the American position, following Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's success last year in getting the United States and Europe mostly in sync on Iran.
Bomb material. Iran seems bent on slicing off, one by one, the restrictions imposed by its deal with France, Britain, and Germany--an agreement already undercut by Iran's resumption last August of the conversion of uranium into a gas that is fed into centrifuges. Those machines spin out enriched fuel for nuclear power plants--or for bombs in stronger fuel concentrations. Tehran, which denies weapons ambitions, says it now plans to funnel some of the gas into centrifuges for peaceful research. That sounds basically like enrichment. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said talks with the so-called EU-3 nations had hit a "dead end" and called the turn of events "very, very ominous."
Last week, the three countries called for an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency board to seek a resolution sending the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, a development that Russia and China have tried to avert. Russia, miffed that Tehran rebuffed its compromise proposal, now suggests it won't block the resolution, though China remains a question mark. Iran threatened to bar all IAEA inspections if the dispute moves to the Security Council.
Standoff. North Korea, meanwhile, has been refusing to rejoin six-nation nuclear talks. That followed one point of progress: a significant, if vague, September agreement on principles for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Ever since, the North has been issuing demands that have virtually knocked the talks off the rails--most recently that Washington lift de facto sanctions on firms accused of helping the North circulate counterfeit money or trade in weapons. Frustration is building in Washington. Says Christopher Hill, the top State Department negotiator on North Korea: "They've been casting around for excuses as to why they're not prepared to go"back to the talks. Hill says there is "no timeline" for the negotiations.