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North Korea Test Could Complicate Iran Nuclear Talks, say Experts


North Korea's claims to have detonated a nuclear weapon are expected to have wide-reaching effects on efforts to stem nuclear proliferation, especially with regard to Iran. Tehran will be calculating what the international response to the North Korean test will be, and how it will affect its bargaining position.

The physical shock waves from North Korea's test may have been limited, but the political shock waves are far more profound, and no more so than in Tehran.

Karim Sadjapour, an Iranian affairs analyst with the International Crisis Group, says Iran, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, could get some bargaining leverage regarding its own nuclear program from the North Korean test.

"I would argue that it strengthens Iran's bargaining position because they can point to the fact that, as opposed to North Korea which is really an egregious proliferator and has been an egregious abuser of the NPT, that Iran is still in compliance, that Iran has not defaulted in its commitments to the NPT as egregiously as North Korea, and that Iran should be dealt with much more delicately and reasonably than a country like North Korea," he said.

The West has accused Iran of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions of its own. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany have been trying various diplomatic strategies to dissuade it from that path, including offering incentives to get Iran to halt uranium enrichment - a key step toward making a nuclear bomb. However, U.S. intelligence officials say Iran lags behind North Korea and is at least four years away from having a nuclear weapons capability.

Iran, for its part, insists it only seeks nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as is its right under the NPT, and that it will never give up enrichment.

But Kenneth Katzman, an Iran analyst with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, points out that there was an agreement reached with North Korea in 1994 and, as the recent test shows, it did not hold up. Iran, he says, may now feel emboldened to speed up its nuclear program.

"There was the agreed framework in 1994," he said. "North Korea then went away from that and kept proceeding. And I would say, the Iranians would say, everybody would say, that North Korea is in a much stronger position than it was at the time of the Agreed Framework in 1994. So I think the message for Iran is not to accept any grand bargain or any deal, but to simply proceed with the nuclear weapon capability, and try to get there as fast as possible."

He adds that any new incentives offered Iran will now have to be considerably better than previous offers.

"If there is a deal, so to speak, to be contemplated with Iran, I think the deal, if such is possible, would have to be sweeter than it was before this test because Iran now sees the value of having the nuclear capability, and it's going to take more of an incentive to bargain it away," Katzman said.

The United States has been pushing for sanctions against Iran, but the idea has been met with reluctance by Russia and China, both of which have trading interests in Iran. They have counseled patience and more diplomacy.

Karim Sadjapour of the International Crisis Group says the North Korean test eases the pressure on Iran to some extent.

"I think that's their calculation in general, that given the chaos in Iraq, what took place in Lebanon, given the high prices of oil, that the international community, the West, really does not have the will to embark on a crisis with Iran," he said. "So I think that in the eyes of Iran, North Korea, the latest conundrum with North Korea, adds to the list of woes that the West has to deal with."

Derek Mitchell, a former special assistant for East Asia and Pacific Affairs to the secretary of defense, says that when it comes to Iran, the U.S. can now tell the Chinese and others that the North Korean test is a clear demonstration that diplomacy and negotiations do not always achieve successful results.

"This is where the rubber hits the road because they [China] are saying the same things to us over Iran: be patient, use diplomacy, and, you know, this nuclear capability is farther down the road, we've got time," he said. "And now we can turn back to them and say, listen, that doesn't hold any water [that doesn't work]. In Iran we have even greater stakes in keeping [them] non-nuclear than even North Korea."

Iran's leadership made no comment on the North Korean nuclear test.

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