VIENNA â€” North Korea says it wants to talk. Ditto Iran. So why is America saying no? Some experts say that direct talks with Pyongyang and Tehran might be the only option the US has left to defuse the world’s two most pressing nuclear crises.
But for the Americans, the risks involved in sitting down with two members of US President George W. Bush’s “axis-of-evil” have Washington resisting calls from Pyongyang and Tehran for one-on-one negotiations.
From a pundit’s point of view, the reasoning is simple.
Confrontation invites confrontation, they say, and has led to the present crises â€” North Korea’s claim that it has exploded a test nuclear bomb and Iran’s relentless push to develop technology that would allow it to do the same within a decade.
“Talking will not guarantee success,” says Patrick M. Cronin, a former official in the Bush administration and the director of studies at London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies.
“But not talking may guarantee failure.” Such views have been echoed by some of America’s closest allies and internationally influential figures.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Wednesday called for direct US-North Korea talks. German political leaders publicly urged the US to talk face-to-face with the Iranians earlier this year, and additional pressure from France, Russia and China subsequently led to a major departure by Washington â€” agreement to end the decades-long policy of no direct contacts with the Iranians and to join in multilateral talks with them, if Tehran compromises on its nuclear ambitions.
Even former secretary of state James Baker, asked by Bush to form an advisory group on Iran, is counselling a rethink.
“I believe in talking to your enemies,” he told ABC News recently. “In my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”
In the case of North Korea, America was talking with the leadership in Pyongyang as recently as seven years ago.
Tensions appeared to ease under former US President Bill Clinton after he agreed in 1999 to the first major easing of economic sanctions against the North since the end of the Korean war in 1953 if the communist nation delivered on its promise of giving up aspirations to own nuclear weapons.
But the North quickly seized on delays in US promises of help in developing a peaceful nuclear industry. By July 2000, it threatened to restart its nuclear programme. Three years later it withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out UN nuclear inspectors, blinding the world and allowing it to move forward with its weapons development â€” and its claimed bomb test Monday.
With the North failing to be budged by threats and sanctions, calls now are growing for renewed direct US contacts with Pyongyang â€” even if they are on the sidelines of long-stalled six-party talks that also include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
But US administration officials have pointed to the failure of the direct talks under Clinton. And Bush himself has rebuffed the idea, telling reporters Wednesday: “One has a stronger hand when there’s more people playing your same cards,” he told reporters Wednesday.
David Wall of London’s Chatham House strategic think tank said that â€” beyond the risk of renewed failure in direct talks â€” the Americans could not suddenly abandon the six-party negotiations without suffering damage.
“The others would feel sidelined and very upset if the Americans suddenly decided to go it alone,” he said.
China, in particular, could see direct US-Pyongyang talks as a possible threat in its traditional region of strategic influence.
And while the endgame strategy of all five players might be the same â€” a safer Korean peninsula â€” they differ in the risks they are willing to take. That, in turn, strengthens the hand of the North.
The United States and Japan want the Security Council to impose a partial trade embargo, including strict limits on Korea’s weapons exports, a freeze of related financial assets and inspections of cargo to and from North Korea.
They prefer that the sanctions fall under the portion of the UN Charter that gives the council the authority to back up its resolutions with a range of measures that include military action.
China is considered to have the most leverage with North Korea as its top provider of badly needed economic and energy aid. But both Beijing and Seoul worry a hardline approach could destabilise the North and send refugees flooding over their borders.
Divisions over Iran also appear to have doomed the multilateral approach, with Russia and China resisting US calls for harsh UN sanctions on Tehran for defying a Security Council demand that it stop uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear weapons. That has left the Islamic republic confident that any punitive action that the world can agree to will be more symbolic than severe.
And while the Americans agreed earlier this year to join in any multination nuclear talks with Iran, that appears to have been too little, too late.
Under former president Mohammed Khatami, a relative moderate, US officials have told the AP that the Iranians seemed genuinely interested in a one-on-one with the Americans â€” offering the opportunity for a potential bargain trading nuclear moderation against a US promise not to seek regime change.
But while his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks about talks, there is general agreement they would lead to nothing â€” except possible US humiliation at the hands of a man who boasts about wiping Israel off the fact of the map and who sees the strong showing of Iran proxy Hizbollah against Israeli forces in Lebanon as a direct defeat of the United States.
US-Iranian negotiations under Khatami “would have been the right thing to do back then,” said Nadim Shehadi, of the Chatham House strategic think tank in London.
“Now, things have changed a lot. You have Ahmadinejad, the Americans perceiving themselves in a very weak position and the Iranians perceiving themselves in a very strong position.
“This is not the best starting point for direct talks.”