Nuclear Tensions Between U.S., Iran and North Korea Continue to Grow
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MARGARET WARNER: As delegates from 188 countries meet at the U.N. this week on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, concern over Iran and North Korea has held center stage.
Last weekend, Iran threatened to resume its uranium enrichment programs as early as this week because talks with the Europeans were going nowhere. But today the Iranian foreign minister said Tehran was prepared to continue talking.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il declared last weekend he’d never resume negotiations with the U.S. and others over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal because President Bush was a “philistine.” North Korea withdrew from the treaty two years ago.
But a White House spokesman said today that President Bush — after talking with Chinese President Hu Jintao by phone — was determined to try to get North Korea back to the bargaining table.
MARGARET WARNER: At the conference itself, debate between the U.S. and Iran has been anything but diplomatic.
The top U.S. official there said Monday the international community should cut Iran and North Korea off from any nuclear energy technology because they had cheated on the treaty. He also demanded that Iran dismantle all the nuclear facilities it had built over two decades.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Iran persists in not cooperating fully. Iran has made clear its determination to retain the nuclear infrastructure it secretly built in violation of its NPT safeguards obligations.
MARGARET WARNER: But the next day, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi declared Iran had an “inalienable right” to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
KAMAL KHARRAZI: It is unacceptable that some tend to limit the access to peaceful nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states, under the pretext of nonproliferation.
This attitude is in clear violation of the letter and spirit of the treaty, and destroys the common fundamental balance which exists between the rights and obligations in the treaty.
MARGARET WARNER: The rhetoric at the conference is matched by a debate in Washington about the Bush administration’s approach. Longtime arms control advocates like Joe Cirincione do share the administration’s worry over Iran’s threat to resume uranium enrichment.
JOE CIRINCIONE: If we let Iran and Brazil and these other countries get this technology, many more countries might want it. And then you have a world where many countries are on the very brink of nuclear weapons capability. That’s too risky a situation to be able to tolerate. We’ve got to stop it here; we’ve got to stop it now.
MARGARET WARNER: How short is the step between getting to full enrichment capability for peaceful purposes and being able to manufacture weapons?
JOE CIRINCIONE: Once you have a large functioning enrichment capability it’s just a matter of retooling it to turn it into a nuclear bomb factory. It’s observable. The inspectors would see it happening, but they couldn’t do anything to stop it. That’s the problem.
MARGARET WARNER: But Cirincione says the Bush administration is standing in the way of solving that and other proliferation problems because it hasn’t lived up to pledges the U.S. made at past NPT conferences on missile defenses, nuclear testing, and cuts to U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles. JOE CIRINCIONE: The United States is coming into this conference with the view that it’s basically a problem of compliance, and what they mean by that is other people’s compliance, particularly Iran and North Korea.
For most of the countries in this conference, they see the problem of Iran and North Korea but they also see it as a problem of compliance on the part of the U.S. and those other countries with the nuclear weapons for hanging on to these Cold War arsenals.
MARGARET WARNER: The NPT conference in New York runs until May 27. Whether it will agree on anything to contain the spread of nuclear technology remains a very open question.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now to discuss the administration position and expectations for this conference is Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for Political Affairs. Undersecretary Burns, welcome.
NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you very much, Margaret. Nice to be with you.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being with us. Let’s start with today’s news. How significant or how did you read what the Iranian foreign minister said today about the fact that Iran really is willing to continue talks with the Europeans?
NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, it’s good to hear the statement by the Iranian foreign minister, but I must say that we’re a little bit skeptical. Iran for 18 years withheld the truth about its nuclear weapons activities and enrichment programs from the IAEA.
The United States is fully supportive of the efforts of the European governments to try to negotiate an agreement with Iran but that negotiation is very specific.
Iran must cease and dismantle all of its nuclear fuel cycle activities and it must end forever its attempt to build a nuclear weapons program behind the guise of what it says is a peaceful nuclear energy program.
So while it is good the Iranians want to continue the negotiations, we would certainly like to see some degree of seriousness by Iran in those negotiations itself.
MARGARET WARNER: But as you know, I mean, Iran says that under the treaty, it has an inalienable right to continue pursuing this technology for civilian purposes.
NICHOLAS BURNS: But the agreement that Iran entered into November of last year in Paris with Britain, France and Germany, is that it will not just suspend its nuclear fuel cycle activities. It will actually lead to cessation and dismantling.
That means that Iran would not be able to have the possibility to enrich or produce fissile material which, as you know, is the essential ingredient in the capacity to build a nuclear device.
Given Iran’s track record over the last 18 years or so, and given the fact that it is a state that’s been highly irresponsible in the way it’s interacted with all of its neighbors, we simply cannot afford, the world cannot afford to see Iran acquire this type of capability.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, the U.S. acknowledging that under the treaty it has the right to pursue this technology but that it somehow – are you saying it has forfeited it because it cheated?
NICHOLAS BURNS: Iran did cheat for a very long time. That is not just the opinion of the United States; it’s the opinion of the international community and of the International Atomic Energy Association, which is the world watchdog on all the nuclear powers and states that wish to become nuclear powers.
Right now in New York at the United Nations we are debating the Nonproliferation Treaty and what we should do to strengthen it. And I think the clear will of the international community is that a state like Iran should not become a nuclear power.
It is not a responsible state; it’s a state that has supported terrorist groups in the Middle East; it’s a state that has not been consistent with the more positive moves of the Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace or certainly hasn’t been a positive player in what is happening inside Iraq.
So given this track record, we can’t at all support the possibility of Iran acquiring this type of capability.
MARGARET WARNER: Now in New York, you have support for what at least some delegates have said was a discriminatory policy that it is perfectly all right for Brazil to continue pursuing this technology but not for Iran.
NICHOLAS BURNS: There are many states around the world that have peaceful nuclear energy programs that run nuclear reactors, many states in Europe and beyond, but those states are signatories for the Nonproliferation Treaty; they abided by the restrictions in that treaty.
But here we have in the case of Iran, a country that has not done that, a country that has not told the truth in the past, so we would be a little bit naïve if we took these promises at face value. And so that’s why we remain skeptical about what it is doing.
MARGARET WARNER: Now there are many delegates in New York that have been quoted this week, Kofi Annan, delegates from friendly countries like New Zealand and Luxembourg, who have said the U.S. is undercutting its own position because it has not lived up to all of its pledges.
It hasn’t reduced its arsenals as much as it should, and now the Pentagon is now talking about developing a new kind of bunker buster nuclear weapon.
NICHOLAS BURNS: The United States, Margaret, is an original signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty. We are one of the leaders in protecting that treaty and trying to strengthen it.
As you know, three years ago we signed a landmark treaty with the Russian Federation to reduce the level of nuclear warheads on both sides to historically low levels.
Before that, in the administrations of both President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, we took further measures to try to ensure nuclear stability between the United States and the Russian Federation.
So I have to say I don’t know what specific statements you’re referring to but the United States, I think, had an unassailable position as a leader in the movement to try to stem the spread of nuclear technology and particularly of fissile material and to keep it out of the hands of irresponsible nations like Iran who should not be entrusted with it.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that, your read of the conference is that the U.S. hasn’t been undercut, the Bush administration, by the fact that it has, for instance, not done, as it said in 2000, which was push to ratify the test ban treaty, walked away from the ABM Treaty.
This new treaty in Moscow you have with the Russians is not verifiable – you don’t think that really plays into the negotiating and the bargaining that is going on in New York?
NICHOLAS BURNS: I don’t think so at all. I think the story this week is that there is a new international spotlight on both Iran and North Korea — two states that all of us have to ensure do not acquire nuclear weapons capability.
And I’d just like to say, on the historical record, the United States did not walk away from the ABM Treaty. We decided with the Russian Federation to negotiate a new treaty to take its place.
And that treaty holds the promise of bringing us down to levels of nuclear warheads, low levels that we haven’t seen since the dawn of the nuclear age when there was this tremendous buildup of the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., way back at the beginning of the Cold War.
So we think that we have been a highly responsible adherent to this treaty and the focus has to be on those countries, frankly, whose track records are very poor, and Iran and North Korea lead that pack.
MARGARET WARNER: So what specifically does the U.S. want to get out of this conference? Is there something you’re specifically proposing that would be concrete?
NICHOLAS BURNS: President Bush made a statement at the beginning of this week; Secretary Rice has spoken out of course this week about the Nonproliferation Treaty.
We want to see a renewed and strengthen international effort to took at those states that seek to violate the Nonproliferation Treaty, that seek to create nuclear weapons capabilities when they clearly should not and we would like the international community to apply pressure to them to cease and desist.
And that’s why President Bush decided to support the efforts of Britain, France, and Germany to achieve a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the problem that Iran has posed. That is the track we’re on.
Secretary Rice reaffirmed that this week, earlier this week, and we hope to see a European success, and we hope that Iran will live you up to that agreement if it is reached.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re talking about a consensus that stands behind the talks. Let me ask you about North Korea. North Korea, of course, is not at the conference. They walked away from the treaty. Is there practically anything this conference can do to rein in North Korea?
NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think there is a lot that that the international community can do. President Bush had a conversation with President Hu of China today by telephone, and they both agree that it is time for North Korea to return to the six-party talks.
It has been 11 months since North Korea walked away from those talks. North Korea clearly has to abide by the wishes of China, of the Russian Federation, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, rejoin these talks and walk back the developments of the last few years which the North claims have led to its own nuclear weapons capability.
That’s another regime that sensible people around the world can agree should never possess nuclear weapons. And we’ve got to stem that tide as well.
MARGARET WARNER: I guess — what I’m having a hard time figuring out here what is new here?
I mean, that has been has been the U.S. position – the U.S. and China have agreed on this before and the fact is, as you’ve said, it’s been 11 months. And then North Koreans say they’re continuing to produce nuclear weapons.
NICHOLAS BURNS: I do think there is an increasing level of frustration in Asia, certainly, and certainly in the United States about the refusal of the North Koreans to even talk to the rest of the world about what they claim is the constitution of a nuclear weapons program.
If you look at the regime in Pyongyang and look at its erratic behavior, it is clearly not a responsible state, and so President Bush and Secretary Rice believe one of the great problems of our generation is to assure that nuclear weapons technology be kept out of the hands of states that are irresponsible.
MARGARET WARNER: A final brief question just following up on that, Mohammed -
NICHOLAS BURNS: — they shouldn’t have these weapons.
MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. I’m sorry for interrupt you. Mohammed elBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is saying, “Okay, one solution would be let’s put all enriched fuel under international control; give everyone access but everyone abides to the same rules from the U.S. to North Korea.” Would the United States support that proposal?
NICHOLAS BURNS: You know, I think we understand the proposal has been made, but it’s not in a sense a realistic proposal at this time because you have these major proliferators of nuclear energy technology and nuclear weapons technology at large in the world today.
And the job of the nuclear proliferation treaty and all the states debating this in New York this week is to lasso those states and corral them and make sure that responsible countries like the United States can entrust what these countries are saying and doing.
And the only way we can achieve that is to have open and verifiable agreements. That’s what we’re trying to do with Iran right now. And that’s clearly what the effort of the European Union countries is and we support that.
With North Korea, it’s a little bit more difficult; they refuse to even show up at the talks. So I think the most realistic way forward is to proceed with the six-party talks in North Korea, and also try to seek a diplomatic solution with Iran.
The Iranians know that if they break the agreement with the European countries, the alternative is to have the United Nations Security Council have the issue referred to them and look at the issue of sanctions. We hope very much that the Iranians will choose the first course, which is a negotiated agreement to cease and dismantle all of their activities.
MARGARET WARNER: Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, thank you so much.
NICHOLAS BURNS: Margaret, thank you very much.