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Gareth Evans
Published: Sunday 29 April 2012
With North Korea, the provocations continue to come thick and fast. Understandings are reached, only to be immediately broken, as with the North’s agreement in February, in return for US food aid, to accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, suspend uranium enrichment, and halt missile and weapons tests.

Keeping Cool in the Nuclear Heat

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Perhaps it is going too far to say, as someone did after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill two years ago, that most Americans want a president who is cool, calm, and collected in a crisis – except when there is a crisis. But of all the charges thrown at President Barack Obama by his domestic political opponents, the hardest for most outsiders to accept is that he is too emotionally disengaged: all brain cells and no red-blood cells.Certainly in defense and foreign policy, a cool and measured response to the extreme provocations that often come with that territory is what the world wants, and needs, from the leader of its reigning superpower. Nowhere is that need greater than in the cases of North Korea and Iran, owing to the destructive potential of the weapons that they have or may be developing.

With North Korea, the provocations continue to come thick and fast. Understandings are reached, only to be immediately broken, as with the North’s agreement in February, in return for US food aid, to accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, suspend uranium enrichment, and halt missile and weapons tests. Within little more than a month, a “satellite rocket” is launched, albeit spectacularly misfiring, and all bets are off.

With the North’s new leader Kim Jong-un feeling the heat of that technical humiliation, there is now every reason to be concerned that another nuclear-weapon test, or some other chest-beating military antic, is imminent. China seems unable or unwilling to moderate its neighbor’s behavior. Nerves in South Korea, and especially Japan, are raw.

The Obama administration has been right not to appear too spooked by all of this. The tone of the American response has been firm, giving appropriate reassurance to its allies and making clear that gamesmanship will not be tolerated, but not raising the temperature further. Its three-pronged approach of containment, deterrence, and openness to negotiation is exactly the right course to pursue.

Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula – with the price being guaranteed regime survival and major economic support for the North – may be a fading dream. But it is still not impossible. We came much closer to getting there than is now remembered in the Agreed Framework deal of the mid-1990’s, in which I participated as Australia’s Foreign Minister.

The underlying dynamics have not changed fundamentally since then. For all of their infuriating brinkmanship, it is reasonable to assume that North Korea’s leaders are not bent on national suicide, as any attempted use of their still very modest nuclear arsenal would certainly entail.

With Iran, the stakes are, and always have been, higher. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the prospect of a regional arms race (starting with Saudi Arabia) – and thus heightened risk of nuclear war by accident, design, or miscalculation – is very much greater than is the risk of further proliferation in Northeast Asia. And just one or two nuclear weapons could effectively destroy a country of Israel’s size. Accordingly, the pressure on Obama to be seen to be doing something to stop Iran in its tracks is very much greater than in the case of North Korea, and will become almost unbearable during this election year.

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But Obama’s response so far has been, again, exactly right – cool and measured; avoiding any military adventurism of his own and discouraging Israel from it; and applying the same three-pronged strategy of containment, deterrence, and openness to negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the talks now under way between Iran and the 5+1 Group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) will bear fruit. But, with the escalating financial sanctions of the past year now clearly biting hard, the signs are more encouraging than they have been for some time.

What makes things politically difficult for Obama is the widespread perception that Iran is hell-bent on actually acquiring a physical nuclear arsenal; that all else is dissimulation; and that negotiations can at best buy time. But it is still possible to achieve a negotiated outcome that recognizes Iran’s “right to enrich” uranium, while giving the international community complete confidence that the red line of weaponization would not be crossed. That has long been my view, based on a decade of engagement with the issue as President of the International Crisis Group, and I know many US and other international policymakers share it.

ran’s calculations, as I have heard them, reflect five key factors. One is its concern to avoid preemptive strikes by Israel, and a war that it does not believe that it could win. Another is its belief that any Shia bomb would soon be matched by a Sunni one, making any regional hegemony short-lived. Third, Iran is anxious that weaponization could exhaust any remaining tolerance from Russia and China. Fourth, it wants to avoid the further economic pain that universally applied sanctions would cause. Finally, and interestingly (if unpersuasive to many), all of Iran’s leaders continue to insist that weapons of mass destruction are incompatible with the basic tenets of Islam.

Full-throated bellicosity often has more popular appeal than the thoughtful and patient exploration of opportunities for peace. The world should be profoundly grateful that, on nuclear proliferation as on other issues, we have in the current US president someone for whom reason instinctively trumps emotion.

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ABOUT Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans, Australia’s former foreign minister, is President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group and Chancellor, Australian National University. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect.

Given recent and planned US

Given recent and planned US ICBM tests and its enormous nuclear arsenal, I wouldn't feel any less safe if Iran had the bomb. Or anyone else. What with the most war-mongering, (atomic) bomb dropping nation already having it in spades I mean. Talk about hypocrisy...

As for Israel and nukes,

As for Israel and nukes, there's also still the Symington Amendment (1976) which, basically, bans U.S. foreign aid to countries that have nukes and don't comply with IAEA regulations and inspections. So, the US has to play games to never formally acknowledge that Israel has nukes. That screws up our policy-making vis-a-vis Iran as well.

I agree with the other

I agree with the other posters about the very real "elephant in the room" (Israel). It's no surprise that someone who was the prime minister of a western country would totally ignore Israel's role in Middle East instability.

Dear Mr. Evans,If you have

Dear Mr. Evans,If you have the time please study Indian History between the years 1750 and 1890, the years during which British East India Company (1757-1857) and therafter the British Crown colonized the Indian Sub-Continent. You will discover an uncanny resemblance between how the British Empire did what they did then and what the American Century Empire is doing now in the Middle East

The proliferation of Nuclear

The proliferation of Nuclear power in the USA and around the world is a far more pressing problem than Iran. Japan has already Nuked the USA and most folks do not even realized it. POOR dumb suckers live in the USA.

Mr. Evan's comments about

Mr. Evan's comments about nuclear proliferation omits the elephant in the room, that Israel acquired nuclear weapons years ago thereby setting the stage for a nuclear arms race in the area. So how did Israel aquire such weapons when the US was taking such care to prevent proliferation? I'll leave that to your imagination but it most certainly required a superpower conspiracy with Israel to thwart international laws against such activity.

Mr. Evans' statement

Mr. Evans' statement regarding Iran is totally biased and full of duplicity. Firstly, the West never tires of depicting Iran as the aggressor and victimizer which is totally and absolutely contrary to the historical facts. Since 1953 America and the West have kept Iran under their diktat through their puppet, the Shah, And when they succeeded in throwing off that choke hold the Americans and the West collectively designated Iran as an enemy. The siege of American embassy has also been totally misrepresented. The Western press never mentions that as long as the Shah was in Egypt and the Bahamas there were only demonstrations and occupation of the Embassy started only When the Shah set foot on the American soil, rightly fearing, reading into previous history, that the Shah would be returning to Iran flying in a CIA plane. Please remember that other nations of the world do now understand the evil face of the West and the real axis of evil is AMERICA, ISRAEL, FRANCE and BRITAIN and that, this axis of evil IS not the international community.

Siddiqi... My friend, it is

Siddiqi... My friend, it is your "facts" that need to be corrected to match the truth. Iran has done no small share of "victimizing" through it's proxies in Lebanon and Syria to name just two. I don't disagree with your representation of the Shah as an international asshole, installed and propped up through illegal means and a disgrace to civility everywhere. I believe it was Iran, but mostly just the mullahs, that had already been feeding the Iranian people a steady diet of America hating predicated on the Shah's client status, (along with Israel). America regarded Iran as an enemy because Iran (if we regard the mullahs as the spokesperson of the Iranian people) had already made exactly that declaration about America, and then backed up the sentiment by giving it's imprimatur to breaching international law by invading our embassy. Let me ask this; what the hell difference does it make to you if the Shah had flown into Iran on a CIA aircraft? Wasn't he already hated?

There are more than a few of us in this nation that are cognizant of the history of America's (and Brtitain's) involvement in the Persian gulf and the middle east and Iran particularly and it is justifiably regarded as despicable. But utilizing it to rationalize ever more despicable behavior is a waste of time and energy and patently hypocritical. And let me say that YOUR axis of evil is as imaginary as george w. bush's axis of evil and just about as useful. The reason you are seeing "evil" as coming from this country and it's allies is because this is where the financial centers are. This is where the heartless, soul-less, avaricious business decisions are made (and they are often find heir way into political decisions) about the resources that are slated for plundering. And because it involves large sums of cash, it means there is a political interest from the aspect of the Iranians (or Saudis or the whomever) and that means that there is going to be the patented sort of power politics that leads to wars, cold and hot and the breakdown of civility between nations and people. Your logic here is no more useful than the logic of w. bush and his trumped up BS about Saddam Hussein. Your righteous indignation is NOT righteous.

The solution could be so

The solution could be so simple; Israel get rid of all it's nuclear weapons (plus chemical weapons ideally) so Iran is not threatened and would therefore oblige the west's wishes, regrettably that is not going to happen because the leaderships in the west is letching after the assets of Iran - the oil.

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