On March 6 2007, North Korea and the US concluded their first set of normalisation talks, which are part of the agreement reached in Beijing last month. Oddly enough the talks also coincide with American efforts to establish cordial ties with Iran. In her testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that that Washington will join a “neighbours meeting”, convened by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be followed by ministerial talks in April.
So after five years of having labelled Iran and North Korea as part of the axis of evil, the Bush administration has finally decided to abandon its bellicose stance in preference for normalisation. Leaving aside America’s fading status in international affairs; US motives behind the restoration drive are borne out of separate considerations for each country.
In the case of North Korea, the Bush administration has always insisted that Pyongyang must de-nuclearize before the US can deliver economic assistance and enter into a security pact with the North Koreans. However, the agreement signed in Beijing between the six parties on February 13 2007, represents a climb down from the hard-line policy that had frequently bedevilled US relations with North Korea.
The deal reached makes no mention of North Korea relinquishing its existing nuclear weapons and is a departure from previous agreements. The omission is particularly noteworthy as it suggests that America has implicitly—at least—recognised North Korea as a nuclear weapons state (NWS), after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test on October 9 2006. The atomic test marked an escalation in hostilities between Pyongyang and Washington, and came at troubling time for the Bush administration. America, staring at defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, could not afford another confrontation—this time with North Korea. The Bush administration was forced to revise its policy, and with Chinese help proceeded to engage North Korea, which eventually culminated in last month’s joint statement. The anxiety pervading the Bush administration over North Korea’s nuclear status was recently echoed by Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said,” North Korea's programme is much more dangerous to us now than it was in 2002, when President Bush rejected virtually the same deal he is now embracing.”
History between the two nations does not bode well for a swift outcome. The last fifty years or so, demonstrate more than anything else, America’s reluctance to find a permanent solution to the nuclear issue, unwillingness to establish bilateral ties and aversion to see a unified Korean peninsula. America’s intransigence towards North Korea in the past and for the foreseeable future is directed towards keeping China preoccupied with North Korea on it South-eastern border. America has kept the issue simmering and only when Pyongyang has crossed the limits and threatened US interests— such as South Korea’s or Japan’s security—has the US instigated precautionary measures to contain the threat. For instance the firing of two ballistic, over the Japanese archipelago led to the signing of the Agreed Framework in 1994. The placing of a satellite in orbit which enhanced the long-range deep-strike capability of the North Korea prompted the Clinton administration to convene high level talks in the winter of 1998. In all of the standoffs between US and North Korea, the US has been quick to involve China and has used South Korea and Japan its two principal agents in the region to raise the broader question of Asian Pacific security.
Cheney’s recent visit to the region should be judged within this setting. The visit had a two fold aim. First it was meant to assuage Japanese concerns about the pact with North Korea and review progress on the implementation of the accord. Second, it was to send an unequivocal message to the Chinese leadership that America would not tolerate the expansion of Chinese hegemony in the region.
The ongoing negotiations between North Korea and the US, South Korea, and Japan will lead to normalisation, only if the US is confident that it can continue using North Korea to destabilise China.
Unlike North Korea, Iran is a subordinate state to America and since the early eighties has been protecting US interests throughout the region. However, the belligerent statements emanating from Tehran and Washington these days conveys a different picture altogether—one where both countries are preparing for war. America’s detention of Iranian diplomats, the arrest of Shia clerics with close ties to Tehran, the arrival of a second air-craft carrier in the Persian Gulf, the allegation of Iranian explosives used by the Iraqi resistance and numerous intelligence reports about an imminent US strike have reinforced the impression that war is inevitable. Likewise, Iranian allegations that Britain, America and Pakistan are supporting insurgents amongst Iran’s minorities, Tehran refusing to surrender its right to enrich uranium and Iran conducting war games does little to dispel the notion that war can be averted.
But when measured against the backdrop of Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, the confrontational posturing between the two countries belies reality. America knows full well that without Iranian assistance, she would not be able to control the Shia population in the South of Iraq. Equally important is Iranian influence over Hizbollah, and without Tehran’s cooperation the US would be unable to pressurise Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians or stabilise Lebanon. The same can be said about Afghanistan.
America’s intention to hold talks with Iran has been welcomed by Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and other senior officials. The same officials are actively curbing and undermining Ahmadinejad’s limited powers. There in mounting speculation in Tehran that the President may not even survive his term. The Iranian leadership has also signalled its readiness to halt enrichment. This is nothing new—as far back as 2003 in secret talks with the US— a similar offer was made. The aggressive actions undertaken by the US is designed to bolster American authority in Iraq ahead of talks with Iran, and deny her agents in Tehran the ability to rebuff US demands. In the forthcoming US-Iran talks it is likely that Iran will halt its enrichment programme and withdraw support for Hizbollah. In return, Iran will be given the responsibility to manage the affairs of Southern Iraq under American tutelage and be re-admitted to the comity of nations.
The chances of US normalising its relationship with Iran is far greater than its endeavours to normalise ties with North Korea, even though political developments suggest otherwise.