- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

A New Nuclear Bargain: Atoms for Peace 2.0

Mitchell B. Reiss

This essay addresses two sets of questions. The first is how U.S. nonproliferation strategies might need to adapt in the face of challenges posed by North Korea and Iran. The second asks how U.S. policies regarding our own nuclear programs might change in light of the North Korean and Iranian challenges.

A key assumption underlying both questions is that North Korea and Iran each will have demonstrated nuclear weapons capabilities by 2015. While there is no doubt that North Korea has already done so, there is the chance that North Korea may, under the joint agreement reached at the six-party talks in February 2007, engage in a process that will lead to the eventual dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program. Also possible—and this may be more than merely theoretical—is that North Korea may cease to exist, at least in its current form, by 2015, a development that may resolve the North Korean nuclear challenge but would likely create a new set of challenges for the nonproliferation regime.

I also harbor some doubt that Iran may have demonstrated a nuclear weapons capability by 2015, although this may be better characterized as more a hope than a policy. Although it currently looks unlikely that Iran will enter into a negotiated solution to this issue, there is always the additional policy option of military strikes against Iran’s known nuclear facilities. Both because Iran is still thought to be some years away from having nuclear weapons capability, according to public testimony earlier this year by the Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, [1] and because of the ongoing U.S. focus on stabilizing Iraq, this option has received only episodic attention among policymakers and commentators.

This option will become more actively debated and may become increasingly attractive over the next few years, however, due to the confluence of four developments: (1) the further maturation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, accentuated by periodic proclamations by Iran’s leadership of having met nuclear "benchmarks"; (2) the inability of the EU–3+3 diplomatic track, including the possibility of effective sanctions by the UN Security Council, to achieve a diplomatic resolution of this issue; (3) the continued aggressive rhetoric and belligerent behavior of the Iranian regime, including its opposition to the Middle East peace process, interference in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for terrorism; and (4) the U.S. exit from Iraq and the gradual revitalization of U.S. military...

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[1] "The earliest they could produce a nuclear weapon would be early next decade, more likely mid-next decade.” Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, as quoted in "Annual Threat Assessment,” hearing of the Senate committee on Armed Services, February 27, 2007.