Pyongyang nuke deal ‘template for Teheran’

US hopes to get Iran to negotiating table by showing its willingness to use diplomacy.

THE US reached a deal with North Korea with its sights set on a bigger problem: Iran.

It held up as a model for Teheran the six-party agreement where Pyongyang will take steps towards giving up nuclear weapons.

White House spokesman Tony Snow described the deal as a “template” where concerted diplomatic effort on the part of interested parties, especially China and South Korea, would ultimately benefit not just the world, but North Korea as well.

“We hope the Iranians are similarly going to return to the table because we have offered some real opportunities for them,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Mr Snow’s comments confirmed that Iran remains central to United States strategic calculations.

The US perceives Iran as a more immediate threat as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engineers a campaign to spread Shi’ite influence in the Middle East, directly challenging US interests at a time when American military forces are bogged down in Iraq.

North Korea is seen here as a longer-term threat, but one that could still be contained with the help of regional powers.

This may have prompted the Bush administration to cut a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime to focus on Iran. But in doing so, Washington also sent a signal to Teheran that it was not averse to using diplomacy to resolve the nuclear issue.

Indeed, a Pentagon source told The Straits Times that one strategy being pursued by the administration was weakening the influence of Mr Ahmadinejad at home by bolstering the position of moderates who favour talks with the US.

Dr Gary Samore, who helped negotiate the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea during the Clinton administration, described Tuesday’s deal with Pyongyang as a “wise compromise” in which Washington was able to make concessions.

“The Bush administration should be supported for recognising that it was better to accept a limited agreement which stabilised the situation,” he said.

Significantly, he noted that advocates for diplomacy in Teheran could also point to this agreement “as a demonstration that the Bush White House is willing to make practical compromises when necessary”.

Dr Samore, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the deal – no matter how limited – would stabilise East Asia and allow the US to focus on the Middle East.

But not everyone shares this sanguine view. The neo-conservatives have lashed out against it.

Mr Nicholas Eberstadt of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute called it a “farce”. He said that each meeting in Beijing “provides perfect international diplomatic cover for an unobstructed North Korean nuclear arms buildup”.

But in general, moderates saw the agreement as a positive move, even if it warranted caution, given the outcome of past “breakthroughs”.

Mr Jeff Bader, a seasoned Asia hand at the Brookings Institution, said the deal is “a serious step forward”.

It is critical, however, to build trust in the initial phase of negotiations, he said.

He told The Straits Times: “Otherwise, the steps that are envisioned for later in the process will inevitably become the product of more tortured and time-consuming negotiations that will allow forces resisting the agreement to fight a counter-attack.”

At the same time, President George W. Bush must make a case to a Democrat-controlled Congress to fund the fuel purchase for Pyongyang. “They will wonder why it took him six years to get back to this point,” Mr Bader said.

For Washington, the agreement brought the short-term gain of “freezing” Pyongyang’s nuclear development although doubts remain whether it would disarm in the long term.

But the deal was structured in such a way to ensure that if it did collapse, it would be hard for North Korea to finger any country involved in the talks for blame – as it had in the past.

A Stratfor report noted that through the creation of working groups, each of the five parties, aside from North Korea, was responsible for a section of the broader picture.

In particular, China retained control over the overall process – and ultimately, if there was going to be progress in denuclearisation, Beijing would be critical for verification.

South Korea, on the other hand, will gain additional influence over the development of economic and energy and economic infrastructure of its neighbour, a critical step on the path towards eventual reunification.

And Russia will secure a role in East Asia as a moderator among China, Japan and the US.

Ultimately, with each party being a stakeholder, the US will have greater breathing space and time to deal with other vexing issues, principally Iran and broader Middle East security.

Washington might hold up its deal with Pyongyang as a model for Teheran. But given Iran’s growing intransigence and influence in the Middle East, the US will have far less leverage in dealing with the oil-rich country than with the impoverished, communist North Korea.

LESS LEVERAGE

Washington might hold up its deal with Pyongyang as a model for Teheran. But given Iran’s growing intran-sigence and influence in the Middle East, the US will have far less leverage in dealing with the oil-rich country than with North Korea.

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