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Keeping Cool in the Nuclear Heat

CANBERRA – Perhaps it is going too far to say, as someone did after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill two years ago, that most Americans want a president who is cool, calm, and collected in a crisis – except when there is a crisis. But of all the charges thrown at President Barack Obama by his domestic political opponents, the hardest for most outsiders to accept is that he is too emotionally disengaged: all brain cells and no red-blood cells.

Certainly in defense and foreign policy, a cool and measured response to the extreme provocations that often come with that territory is what the world wants, and needs, from the leader of its reigning superpower. Nowhere is that need greater than in the cases of North Korea and Iran, owing to the destructive potential of the weapons that they have or may be developing.

With North Korea, the provocations continue to come thick and fast. Understandings are reached, only to be immediately broken, as with the North’s agreement in February, in return for US food aid, to accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, suspend uranium enrichment, and halt missile and weapons tests. Within little more than a month, a “satellite rocket” is launched, albeit spectacularly misfiring, and all bets are off.

With the North’s new leader Kim Jong-un feeling the heat of that technical humiliation, there is now every reason to be concerned that another nuclear-weapon test, or some other chest-beating military antic, is imminent. China seems unable or unwilling to moderate its neighbor’s behavior. Nerves in South Korea, and especially Japan, are raw.

The Obama administration has been right not to appear too spooked by all of this. The tone of the American response has been firm, giving appropriate reassurance to its allies and making clear that gamesmanship will not be tolerated, but not raising the temperature further. Its three-pronged approach of containment, deterrence, and openness to negotiation is exactly the right course to pursue.

Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula – with the price being guaranteed regime survival and major economic support for the North – may be a fading dream. But it is still not impossible. We came much closer to getting there than is now remembered in the Agreed Framework deal of the mid-1990’s, in which I participated as Australia’s Foreign Minister.

The underlying dynamics have not changed fundamentally since then. For all of their infuriating brinkmanship, it is reasonable to assume that North Korea’s leaders are not bent on national suicide, as any attempted use of their still very modest nuclear arsenal would certainly entail.

With Iran, the stakes are, and always have been, higher. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the prospect of a regional arms race (starting with Saudi Arabia) – and thus heightened risk of nuclear war by accident, design, or miscalculation – is very much greater than is the risk of further proliferation in Northeast Asia. And just one or two nuclear weapons could effectively destroy a country of Israel’s size. Accordingly, the pressure on Obama to be seen to be doing something to stop Iran in its tracks is very much greater than in the case of North Korea, and will become almost unbearable during this election year.

But Obama’s response so far has been, again, exactly right – cool and measured; avoiding any military adventurism of his own and discouraging Israel from it; and applying the same three-pronged strategy of containment, deterrence, and openness to negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the talks now under way between Iran and the 5+1 Group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) will bear fruit. But, with the escalating financial sanctions of the past year now clearly biting hard, the signs are more encouraging than they have been for some time.

What makes things politically difficult for Obama is the widespread perception that Iran is hell-bent on actually acquiring a physical nuclear arsenal; that all else is dissimulation; and that negotiations can at best buy time. But it is still possible to achieve a negotiated outcome that recognizes Iran’s “right to enrich” uranium, while giving the international community complete confidence that the red line of weaponization would not be crossed. That has long been my view, based on a decade of engagement with the issue as President of the International Crisis Group, and I know many US and other international policymakers share it.

Iran’s calculations, as I have heard them, reflect five key factors. One is its concern to avoid preemptive strikes by Israel, and a war that it does not believe that it could win. Another is its belief that any Shia bomb would soon be matched by a Sunni one, making any regional hegemony short-lived. Third, Iran is anxious that weaponization could exhaust any remaining tolerance from Russia and China. Fourth, it wants to avoid the further economic pain that universally applied sanctions would cause. Finally, and interestingly (if unpersuasive to many), all of Iran’s leaders continue to insist that weapons of mass destruction are incompatible with the basic tenets of Islam.

Full-throated bellicosity often has more popular appeal than the thoughtful and patient exploration of opportunities for peace. The world should be profoundly grateful that, on nuclear proliferation as on other issues, we have in the current US president someone for whom reason instinctively trumps emotion.

Read more from our "Deciphering Disarmament" Focal Point.