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Rohit Mule asked: Why major powers were successful in stalling Iran’s nuclear programme but not that of North Korea?

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  • A Vinod Kumar replies: North Korea and Iran were two notable cases of nuclear deviance in the past two decades as both were alleged to have misused their access to nuclear energy resources for peaceful purposes, which they gained as non-nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, since their deviance from non-proliferation norms were considerably different, negotiations pertaining to their respective nuclear programmes have had varied outcomes.

    North Korea had announced its exit from the NPT in 2003 and had since October 2006 been regularly undertaking nuclear weapon tests, the last one being in September 2017. Thus, North Korea is a state possessing nuclear weapons, ninth nuclear-armed state in chronological order, and one of the four de facto nuclear weapon states outside the NPT (the other three being India, Pakistan and Israel). Iran, on the other hand, had not exited from the NPT and continued to be party to the Treaty even during the negotiations. Iran has also so far not conducted any underground nuclear weapon tests. Instead, the range of its normative violations – failing to adhere with safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), building new nuclear facilities and refusing to open them up for IAEA inspections, uranium enrichment beyond permissible limits for non-nuclear weapon states – were all deemed to be preparations towards building a nuclear weapon capability.

    The six-nation negotiation mechanism used in the case of both North Korea and Iran, however, had different objectives. The Six-Party Talks with North Korea (involving South Korea, Japan, US, China and Russia) was initiated in August 2003, months after it exited from the NPT. The purpose of the talks, which collapsed after many rounds of agreements and non-compliance, were focused on key disarmament goals: halting of nuclear and missile tests, return to the NPT and re-adherence to IAEA safeguards, dismantling nuclear stockpile, finally leading to de-nuclearisation. Following the collapse of negotiations, North Korea feverishly expanded its arsenal with extensive nuclear and missile tests until September 2017. Though Kim Jong-un has committed to a de-nuclearisation process after the recent peace initiatives with South Korea, the prospects of concrete action will depend on the outcome of the Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore.

    The P5+1 countries (five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China—plus Germany) negotiating with Iran, however, had far lesser challenges as the latter was still an NPT state-party and had not progressed conclusively towards a nuclear weapon capability. The objectives of negotiations were centred on re-integrating Iran into the non-proliferation mainstream: namely, forcing Iran to halt the advanced uranium enrichment process, ensure its re-adherence with IAEA safeguards and closure of nuclear facilities which were not accounted for, or those which Iran had refused to open for inspections. As per the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) finally signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015, Iran was supposed to eliminate 98 per cent of its uranium stockpile, remove and destroy the core from its Arak reactor to block production of weapon-grade plutonium, dismantle over 13,000 centrifuges and place them under continuous IAEA monitoring, halt all uranium enrichment at Fordow nuclear facility, possess no more than 300 kg of uranium enriched to 3.67 per cent, ship out all spent fuel (to Russia), etc.

    Besides creating conditions for continuous and uninterrupted IAEA safeguards through the Additional Protocol framework, the overall objective was to reduce the break-out time for Iran to reach a nuclear weapon capability, from a period of three-four weeks to over nine months. The Donald Trump administration recently pulled out of JCPoA as it wanted to increase the break-out time to at least a year, besides seeking to curb Iran’s missile programme.

    Posted on June 12, 2018