KWAME HOLMAN: Thousands of protesters marched outside the United Nations yesterday calling on all countries to put aside their nuclear weapons.
Inside, today delegates from 188 nations gathered for the start of a month-long conference to review and perhaps modify the 1970 nuclear nonproliferation treaty. But the meeting opened under the shadow of mounting concerns around the world about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
On the eve of the conference, top Iranian officials announced they quickly would restart their country's uranium enrichment programs unless there was faster progress in talks with the European Union.
HASHEMI RAFSANJANI (Translated): Iran considers itself strong enough to defend the legitimate rights of the nation and the legal rights of the country, and we will never allow you to permanently halt enrichment.
In the meantime, we will attend prolonged and fruitless sessions with patience and firmness to convince you that Iran doesn't want to make nuclear weapons. Iran wants to have all kinds of nuclear technology to benefit this worthy science and use it for the good of our nation, and we will do it at whatever price it takes..
KWAME HOLMAN: Iranian officials insist their nuclear program is only for peaceful energy purposes, but the Bush administration has warned it could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
At the conference today, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, urged Iran not to resume its enrichment program. And he said he hoped for new guidelines for non-military nuclear programs.
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: We need a better control over proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, activities that involve uranium enrichment and plutonium separation.
As experience has shown, effective control of nuclear materials is a choke-point to preventing nuclear weapons development. Without question, improving control over facilities capable of producing weapon-useable material will go a long way toward establishing a better margin of security.
KWAME HOLMAN: The nonproliferation treaty gives non-nuclear-weapons states broad access to nuclear energy technology in exchange for pledges to forego the production of nuclear weapons. North Korea originally signed the treaty, but withdrew from it in 2003. Three other nuclear powers -- India, Pakistan and Israel -- never signed it.
The latest surprise from North Korea, which is believed to have as many as nine nuclear weapons, also came on the conference's eve, with weekend reports it had fired a short-range missile over the Sea of Japan. That followed a claim by a top U.S. intelligence official last week that North Korea might have missiles capable of reaching the United States.
For months, North Korea has refused to return to six-nation nuclear talks and demanded direct negotiations with the United States. Yesterday, White House chief of staff Andrew Card downplayed the military significance of the reported missile test.
ANDREW CARD: Kim Jong Il is not a good leader and he has been very aggressive in his actions. It does not surprise me and it also does not concern me.
KWAME HOLMAN: The reported missile firing follows last week's exchange of verbal barbs between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. At his press conference on Thursday, President Bush was asked about the intelligence assessment of North Korea's capacity to attack the United States.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Kim Jong IL is a dangerous person. He's a man who starves his people. He's got huge concentration camps; there is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon.
We don't know if he can or not, but I think it's best when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong IL is to assume he can. That's why I've decided that the best way to deal with this diplomatically is to bring more leverage to the situation by including other countries.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kim Jong IL responded over the weekend by calling President Bush a "philistine" and a "half-baked hooligan."
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the challenge that North Korea and Iran pose to the mission of this conference, we get two views.
Henry Sokolski was deputy for nonproliferation policy at the Defense Department in the first Bush administration. He's now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington research group.
And Daryl Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit group that advocates arms control to contain the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Welcome to you both. Taking these two countries together, Daryl Kimball -- Iran and North Korea -- what message were they sending to this conference with what they did and said over the last two or three days?
DARYL KIMBALL: Well, I think they're reminding the conference that they're going to stand their ground on what they think are their rights; in the case of Iran, Iran is insisting that it has the right to enrich uranium it says for peaceful purposes. It knows it's going to come under criticism.
North Korea is expressing its impatience about what it sees as inadequate offer from the Bush administration to settle the nuclear crisis there. And for the conference, it's a reminder of what the stakes really are. They're very high.
MARGARET WARNER: How did you take the message from these two countries?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well I think Daryl is right. I would go a little bit further. In the case of North Korea, you have a case in which a country has signed up to the rules, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, clearly violated, found to be in violation, pulls out and does so with impunity.
It is thumbing its nose at the sustainability of the NPT, or the nuclear nonproliferation treaty if some action isn't taken to tighten up the way in which people can leave the treaty with impunity.
In the case of Iran, it not only is a matter of them wanting to insist on rights but they would rewrite the treaty to make it possible for all sorts of other nations to come within days of having bombs by making nuclear fuel like they do.
And as Kofi Annan made very clear in an excellent speech, that would make the nuclear nonproliferation treaty totally unsustainable.
I think also Mr. Rattamaker chimed in. He is our representative, assistant secretary from the U.S., saying that this problem of enrichment and reprocessing and the need to tighten the controls is central to the future of this treaty.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we get to the U.S. position, let me do a little more on North Korea and Iran starting with you, Mr. Kimball, on North Korea.
One, how alarming was the North Korean missile test given its timing, and particularly when you couple that with the warning from the head of the defense intelligence agency last week that they may be to the point where they can marry their weapons technology and their missile technology?
DARYL KIMBALL: Well, I don't think this missile test by itself is all that significant. I would agree with the assessment from the White House and elsewhere that militarily this is not that significant, but it is a stern reminder of the fact that the negotiations with North Korea have been stalled since June of 2004.
During this time, North Korea has been -- we have to assume -- separating more plutonium for nuclear weapons and it's important for the United States and North Korea, I think, to adjust their current positions to make sure that the prospects for a negotiated settlement are increased and not decreased.
MARGARET WARNER: You didn't take what President Bush had to say about Kim Jong IL and what Kim Jong IL had to say about President Bush because when he called him a "philistine" but he said, "a philistine with whom we cannot deal." Do you think that leaves the door open for the possibility of resuming talks?
DARYL KIMBALL: I think we have to look at this with some soberness. I mean, this tough talk from both sides, this childish talk in some ways, is not helpful. And the war of words needs to end.
The conference cannot survive and succeed if the two sides talk in those terms at the conference. We need to get past that and move forward to some real serious new kind of proposals from both North Korea and the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Henry Sokolski, your assessment of, one, how alarming the missile test was and two -- well how alarming the missile test was. I'll take that first.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: They did it before. They did it again. Bush is right. Daryl is right. That is not the thing that we should be alarmed by.
With regard to how to take the talk, I think we have turned a corner because of the talk coming from Kim Jong IL and the president. I do think we need to prepare ourselves for a world in which the six-party talks do not produce any more results than they've produced to date.
What that means is we're going to have to wait the North Korean regime out and hope that there's a better regime coming and make sure no one follows their example with regard to withdrawing from the treaty after violating it. That's what I take from it.
MARGARET WARNER: So Mr. Sokolski, then if we turn to Iran, in the way it's the same question about at least the prospect of talks.
The Europeans are saying, you know, "Let us work with Iran to try to get some incentives in there and get them to permanently abandon their enrichment plans." But you heard what Rafsanjani had to say. Do you think there's any prospect for those talks succeeding at this point?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I guess I'm skeptical to the point of being dour.
MARGARET WARNER: You don't look dour.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: You know, the Europeans and the Americans and the other countries saying, "You have to dismantle." I don't think there's a lot of wiggle room for compromise there.
My hunch is, is that we're pacing time until there's a crisis later this year, and the question will be: Are we going to leave the door open for Iran to pull out of the treaty the way North Korea did? Are we going to try to deter them from taking their capabilities which will grow and actually making a bomb or not?
MARGARET WARNER: That's North Korea.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think we're coming in that direction more than not. Now the diplomacy will continue. It just will probably not produce the results we all hope for.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you as downbeat on the prospects for these talks, the Iranian-European talks?
DARYL KIMBALL: Henry is I think more pessimistic than I am. I think the talks have made progress in a certain respect. Iran has suspended its uranium- enrichment activities while these talks continue.
I think they are talking tough right now on the eve of the next round in order to increase their bargaining leverage, but there is some room for agreement. The Iranians say they don't want to give up their right to uranium enrichment.
The Europeans, I think, can succeed by saying, "We may not require you to give up your right but we sure do want you to indefinitely suspend that capability --
MARGARET WARNER: The activity.
DARYL KIMBALL: -- the activity. But the Iranians are going to want something in return. That is I think a guarantee that they are going to have better relations with Europe and the rest of the world and fuel services for what they say is an important nuclear energy industry.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, Mr. Sokolski, the U.S. has made clear that as far as they're concerned and the Assistant Secretary Rattamaker did again today that this is the number one issue facing the conference, the Iran-North Korea one.
Is there anything realistically that you think this conference could accomplish that would dissuade either of these countries from going down the paths they're on?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, first, I think there is something the conference can do to make sure that the Iranian insistence on rights leading to making fuel that brings them within days of making bombs, not become a model.
They can work on that. Kofi Annan very clearly in his speech said that the treaty on nuclear nonproliferation cannot sustain that kind of reading. And they can speak on that and they can make very clear that that's wrong thinking. With regard to --
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Let me interrupt you for a minute though. Are you talking about what? A resolution? I mean words? Are you talking about an action?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think it's going to be very difficult as long as Iran is part of the conference to get consensus on this point, but I think you can get an awful lot of countries making it clear that the majority of countries believes that this is the way we need to go; that Kofi Annan is correct, that ElBaradei is correct, that Bush is correct and that Iran is wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think are the realistic prospects? I know I didn't let you finish on North Korea, Mr. Sokolski, but let me go to Mr. Kimball here for the conference dissuading either of these countries from continuing down the path.
DARYL KIMBALL: The conference will not be decisive but it can help. I think Henry is on the right track here. I mean the conference needs to make clear that the treaty does not allow a country to pursue any and all so-called "peaceful activities," including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.
But that the state's parties should work in future months and years to figure out ways to regulate what ElBaradei talked about, these sensitive fuel cycle activities. We can't afford to have dozens of Irans within months of being able to produce nuclear bomb material.
But at the same time, the conference needs to make it clear to those developing countries who want access to nuclear energy fuel services that they can have that access through various arrangements that have been put forward by ElBaradei and others that still preserve the basic requirements of the treaty not to spread weapons technologies.
MARGARET WARNER: So, briefly, what could the U.S. do at this conference to make that more likely some kind of understanding, though it sounds like we're talking mostly about words here?
DARYL KIMBALL: We are talking about words. I mean I think the first step for the U.S. is first, do no harm. It has to be careful that it does not enter into a war of words with Iran which is going to give as good as it gets.
And that could undermine the diplomatic process that the Europeans are pursuing. Second, the administration needs to pursue an approach that is universally applied to all states and not just to Iran.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Sokolski, where do you see the U.S. headed here?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think the U.S. Is going to do a good deal after this conference on at least these things and also during the conference I hope.
First, it's going to start backing European proposals to make withdrawal from the treaty after violation something that can't be done with impunity; that there is going to be an expectation that if you as a country, any country, does this, that you will be held accountable for the violations and not be considered a diplomatic equal to other countries. Second --
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, sanctions perhaps or actual punitive steps?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: At the U.N., I think eventually, yes. Second of all, I think you're going to see some effort to get the proliferation security initiative efforts to keep countries from shipping things out of their nation that is illicit in the way of nuclear capabilities to be something that can be intercepted at least in the case of North Korea on the high seas. They will try.
Finally, I think there will be some effort -- I hope more effort than today -- to come to this understanding about either a moratorium or restrictions on the further spread of nuclear fuel-making capabilities and a reading of the treaty that makes very clear that peaceful does not mean a per se right for nations to acquire the means to come within days of having a bomb.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Sokolski, very briefly you were quoted today as saying you thought the administration used to think they could talk their way out of the problems with North Korea but, "The president's body language is suggesting that he thinks Kim has to go." Why are you saying this?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well that's my reading. I'm sure they'll continue to say that we want to continue diplomacy. But the fact of the matter is I think this is the kind of diplomacy that we engaged in with the Soviet Union, a kind of Cold War diplomacy.
It's not the kind of diplomacy that's rushing to get the, yes with this regime. That's my read. There are other views in the administration I'm sure. But that's how I read it.
MARGARET WARNER: Brief final thought on that?
DARYL KIMBALL: I think one thing the U.S. Has to do is to make it clear that the treaty has to be strengthened in all of its aspects. It needs to respect the interests of all, not some, which means the U.S. also has to do much more to pursue its disarmament obligations.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Mr. Kimball, Mr. Sokolski, thank you both.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Thank you.
DARYL KIMBALL: Thank you.