"The principal lesson to be learned from the war in the Persian Gulf is
never fight America without nuclear weapons." - Sharad Pawar, Indian Defense
"Don't shoot. I am Saddam Hussein, president of the republic of Iraq." - Saddam
Hussein, upon being pulled from his spider hole, as reported by Newsweek.
The past several weeks have brought grim news from the world of non-proliferation. The two surviving charter members of the Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea, both spurned renewed multilateral efforts to dissuade them to disarm. In the case of North Korea, the Six Party Talks with Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and the U.S. ran aground over the North's insistence that it had a right to light water nuclear reactors. In Iran, a generous offer of economic incentives proposed by the EU-3 of Germany, France and Britain and endorsed by the U.S. were sidelined as the new hard line government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced it would proceed with a uranium enrichment program which they assert is their "sovereign right" under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
These very public failures have been spun by critics of the Bush administration's approach as proof positive that multilateral negotiating is a waste and that the only way forward is direct, bilateral negotiations with really enticing incentives on the table. Yet even in the unlikely event that the administration were to take the unilateral path and bargain one-to-one, it would likely end in similar disappointment. The truth is, no bargain, pledge, or carrot that the U.S. or other concerned nations can dangle will likely dissuade either North Korea or Iran from their atomic pursuits.
To understand why, it's useful to remember the Pawar Principle outlined in the quote above: if a battle with America is on your horizon, you'd better have nuclear arms. Failure to mind the Pawar Principle invariably leads to the lesson of Saddam & His Journey Down the Spider Hole: a leader without nukes who takes on the U.S. will quickly find himself on the business end of a public delousing.
It is the fundamental insecurity and belligerency of the North Korean and Iranian regimes that spurs their nuclear programs, and those motivations cannot be salved with offers of aid and professions of non-aggression. Negotiations and policies crafted along those lines will continue to fail. Recognizing why these rogue states are pursuing nuclear weapons can help explain why our efforts consistently come up short.
From the atomic histories of the seven confirmed nuclear powers plus the experience of the undeclared but widely acknowledged Israeli arsenal, we can draw some general observations of why nations undergo the costs of developing nuclear arms. Nukes serve two general purposes: security and power. If a nation feels threatened, nuclear arms are the great leveler, instantly improving the fortunes of a nation besieged (Israel) or a sub-par military vis-à-vis its competitor (Pakistan). Nuclear weapons also confer enormous power to the possessing nation. They deter other powers from intervening in its internal affairs (China) and afford the possessor nation a much larger freedom of action to pursue its policies (France). They are the ultimate statement that a country has achieved Great Power status, even if other metrics still lag behind (India).
Nations under duress that could have easily developed their own nuclear forces, such as South Korea and Germany during the Cold War, foreswore their development because they possessed a de-facto nuclear deterrent in America's Cold War security umbrella. The vast arsenals of the U.S. and the Soviet Union kept a lid on the number of nuclear powers - not because non-possessing nations felt secure or signed the NPT but because Cold War defense alliances gave them all the benefits of a nuclear arsenal without having to undergo the costs to develop and field it themselves.
When insecurity passes or massive political change occurs, as in the Ukraine and South Africa after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nations may choose to abandon their weapons of mass destruction. But no nation in the face of a significant threat to its existence has traded its nuclear force for economic incentives.
Understanding why Iran and North Korea pursues weapons does not excuse them from doing so, nor does it absolve the truly abhorrent nature of each regime. But one needn't endorse the Stalinist brutality of Kim Jong Il or the thuggish theocracy of Iran to recognize the strategic environment that's motivating their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The North Korean state is, fundamentally, a war entity: at war with the South Koreans and, importantly, at war with the South's American protector. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt details in the summer 2005 issue of National Interest: "The purposes of [North Korea's] WMD are so closely wedded to purposes of state that they can be described as integrally fused into the very logic of the North Korean system." Nuclear weapons, far from being a means of "blackmail," are fundamental to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's mission as a political entity - a state bent on reunifying the Korean Peninsula at any cost.
As for Iran, the country's Islamic regime defines itself in opposition to Israel and the U.S, both nuclear powers with vastly superior militaries. It has watched its non-nuclear neighbor Iraq twice defeated, occupied and its leader dragged from a hole in the ground. It has (in its view) enemy forces stationed in two bordering countries - Iraq and Afghanistan - with the stated intention of reworking the political order of a region of the world that it believes to be its rightful hegemonic sphere of influence. Iran's ostensibly "civilian" nuclear program, which dates back to the Shah, is also spurred on by a nationalistic desire to harness advanced technology in defiance of Western pressure, claiming a right to do so as a sovereign nation and NPT signatory. Pride is a significant nuclear motivator, as the stature of Pakistan's lionized bomb maker (and officially pardoned) mass proliferator, A.Q. Khan, attests.
The U.S. tries to paper over these incentives by pledging non-aggression and to "respect the sovereignty" of both nations. It appears, however, that both rogue states share the Bush administration's skepticism of the utility of paper treaties for national defense. Indeed, when it comes to something as elemental as a country's security interests no amount of economic inducements or professions of respect will cut it.
In fact, as the atomic history suggests, no nation undergoes the costs and burdens of acquiring nuclear weapons simply to use them as bargaining chips in the pursuit of economic advancement. There is utility in hedging your atomic program for short-term economic gains, as the North Koreans have gamely demonstrated, but their circumvention of the 1994 Agreed Framework should put paid to the notion that they can be bribed away from A-bombs. This explains then, why the dangling of innumerable carrots to both nations - increased trade for the Iranians, energy and heavy oil for the North Koreans - have not produced the desired results. They never will.
But neither will economic sticks. If economic inducements are not enough to produce disarmament then it's equally unlikely that economic penalties will either. Both nations have endured U.S. and other multilateral sanctions which, while slowing the advance, have not substantially derailed either country's efforts to acquire atomic bombs. North Korea is famously impoverished and isolated, earning the derisive moniker the "Hermit Kingdom," yet has still cobbled together a nuclear arsenal reputed to consist of two to six bombs. The only country capable of exerting the type of economic leverage that would effect real change (i.e. a collapse of the regime) is China, and the fear of a destabilized and desperate North Korea with its flood of refugees has thus far stayed China's hand.
Iran not only enjoys the economic cushion of its domestic oil production but has two allies on the Security Council, China and Russia, who can veto attempts to impose punishing, Iraq-style sanctions on the country. Iran is also increasing trade with nations, such as India, that are not alarmed by its nuclear advances.
So the prospects that North Korea and Iran will disarm given the current approach are slim. At best, we can expect a repeat of past performances. Deals will be signed to great fanfare while behind the scenes, in underground facilities, the work toward weapons will continue unabated. Until the U.S. finds a way to address the "root cause" of why these weapons are sought (which is difficult, considering the nature of the regimes), or fashions a strategy to minimize their eventual impact on regional security, endless rounds of jaw-jaw will only serve to fill the memoirs of frustrated diplomats.