WASHINGTON—North Korea is perfecting its nuclear arsenal and Iran appears to be racing toward getting its own. Can sanctions stop them?
That question will be at the top of the global agenda in coming weeks, as the United States and other world powers grapple with an unprecedented pair of nuclear crises, one in East Asia, one in the Middle East.
Under pressure from the White House, the U.N. Security Council is simultaneously debating sanctions on North Korea and Iran, hoping to squeeze each into rolling back its nuclear program.
If the effort fails, President Bush and other world leaders could be left with two highly unpalatable choices: using military force, or learning to live with North Korean and Iranian bombs.
Yet some U.S. government officials, Western diplomats and private experts are skeptical that the diplomatic pressure campaign can budge leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, who have ignored previous demands to change course.
In both countries, "the key question is probably the same—do the political leaders in these countries view nuclear weapons as essential to its national security and political survival, or do they view them as a bargaining chip?" said Kimberly Ann Elliott of Washington's Institute for International Economics, who is an expert on the effect of sanctions.
Elliott, who has studied 200 cases of sanctions stretching back to World War One, said they have worked about one-third of the time—and mostly when the goals involved are modest.
While sanctions have a role to play in the current nuclear crises, resolving them requires the United States to negotiate with Iran and North Korea and address their security concerns, she said.
Bush has declined to deal directly with North Korea, limiting contacts to moribund six-party talks. He has said the United States will join European talks with Iran only after it stops enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear arms.
The president, who has vowed not to let North Korean leader Kim Jong Il retain nuclear weapons, on Wednesday urged that there be "serious repercussions" for North Korea's apparent nuclear test Monday. He didn't say what repercussions he had in mind.
On its own, the U.S. government is increasingly using financial tools to fight proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, following a pattern established in combating terrorist financing.
Last year, the Treasury Department accused a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, Banco Delta Asia, of helping North Korea launder money for illicit activities, prompting the bank to cut ties with the communist North. North Korea retaliated by refusing to return to the six-party talks.
Treasury also has named 25 foreign companies for aiding North Korean and Iranian efforts to acquire weapons material, freezing the companies' U.S. assets and barring them from doing business with U.S. citizens and companies.
Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said that the steps, which frequently prompt similar actions in other countries, are proving highly effective. North Korea has been pushed out of the international financial system, and companies that would act as middlemen for countries seeking weapons of mass destruction have been deterred, Levey said in an interview Wednesday.
Levey traveled to four European countries last month to coordinate financial measures on Iran.
He was cautious whether the United States and its allies could put enough pressure on North Korea and Iran to force their governments to change course.
"That's a much more difficult question and one which has a lot more variables to it," he said.
A more immediate question is whether the United States can convince two other world powers—China and Russia—to agree to sanctions that have teeth.
Russia has steadfastly opposed sanctions on Iran even as Tehran ignored a series of U.N. Security Council deadlines to halt uranium enrichment.
Russia stuck to its position Wednesday, rejecting a U.S.-backed proposal for tough sanctions during a meeting that also included representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States, said a State Department official, who insisted on anonymity to describe closed-door diplomacy.
The official attributed Washington's diplomatic woes to a backlash over the invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction never materialized. "They question our motives. They question our intelligence" on weapons of mass destruction, he said.
The U.S.-backed sanctions package would include curbs on trade in technology that could aid Iran's nuclear program, as well as travel bans and financial measures against Iran's leadership.
U.S. officials argue that by inflicting pain on Iran's leaders, they will cause some political factions in Tehran to push for a different course.
"If done right, there's certainly is the possibility of creating a wedge in Iran," said Elliott, the sanctions expert. But the administration has proceeded "so clumsily" that Iranians have instead rallied around their leaders, she said.
On North Korea, the United States and Japan have proposed even tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions. They include a ban on the transfer of arms-related technology that would be enforced by inspections of cargo going to or from North Korea.
The obstacle to wider action is China, which, while deeply embarrassed by North Korea's nuclear test, is fearful of actions that could destabilize its neighbor.
Elliott said the question is whether Pyongyang's nuclear test has fundamentally changed China's calculation of its own interests.
"Clearly it has, to some degree," she said, but the question is, how much. "They're trying to walk a very thin line."
Japan announced tough punitive steps of its own Wednesday, including a complete embargo on North Korean imports.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061011 NKOREA divide, 20061011 NKOREA troops
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