Can China end the DPRK’s nuclear blackmail?

Then Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie addresses the 2011 Shangri-La Dialogue

By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Members of the United Nations Security Council, including China, have strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test last week, and that rare unanimity could be useful for regional security. If China were to put pressure on North Korea (an historic development that looks possible) while the United Nations Security Council tightened the vice of sanctions, perhaps Pyongyang could be pressured to at least suspend further tests?

This, however, is probably not to be. North Korea has maintained its missile and nuclear programmes as a going concern for years, despite a growing raft of sanctions. In addition, sanctions have done little to change the decision-making of other worrisome countries such as Iran.

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US must overhaul North Korea policy: expert

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By Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Research Assistant for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The United States needs to push North Korea straight to the top of its policy agenda, says academic Joel Wit (above), saying that Pyongyang might already possess 25 nuclear weapons and may have deployed a prototype road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Speaking at the IISS several days before Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test on 12 February, the former State Department official and Visiting Scholar at the US–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) said he thought the passive policy of ‘strategic patience’ during the Obama administration’s first four years had failed.

As the administration entered its second term, he suggested, the White House should take a more proactive approach to North Korea – especially given President Barack Obama’s recommitment to Asia and his outspoken advocacy on nuclear issues.

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Khamenei douses hopes for nuclear talks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.

In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’

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Myanmar ‘delivers’ nuclear transparency

President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In the run-up to presidential visits aides look for achievements that can be announced, typically agreements on trade and the like. Called ‘deliverables’ in the diplomatic argot, they are often the currency of exchange for deciding on travel destinations.

So when it was announced that US President Barack Obama would include Burma in his mid-November trip to Southeast Asia, there were concerns and questions, including from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about whether Myanmar deserved the honour. What ‘deliverable’ would warrant bestowing a presidential visit on a country that had not yet fully emerged from its decades of authoritarianism and human-rights abuses?

But as it turned out, the quid pro quo for Obama’s visit was significant indeed. To the delight of the
non-proliferation community, Myanmar said it would accept the global standard for nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), known by the catchy name of the ‘Additional Protocol’.

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Key question for the next US president

2012 debate banner

In the run-up to the second presidential debate, to be held in a town-hall-debate format in New York state this evening, we thought it worthwhile drawing attention to a contribution by the IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick to a piece in Canada’s Global Brief magazine. Asked what key question he would put to the candidates, the director of the institute’s non-proliferation and disarmament programme queried whether they would ‘launch another war in the Middle East in order to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons’.

Tehran’s ‘actual production of nuclear weapons can be deterred’, Fitzpatrick believed, but the potential for diplomatic miscalculation was rife.

Read more of his thoughts on the judgement calls the next president might have to make on Iran, including  ‘whether to join an Israeli attack, despite the huge drawbacks – including that it may not set back the timelines more than two to three years’.


Iran’s currency woes: how damaging for the regime?

'A fistful of Rials'

The value of Iranian rials. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Scarto

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Protests erupted in Tehran on Wednesday after Iran’s currency, the rial, lost about 60% of its value over just eight days. Although the protests are unlikely to be the ‘beginning of the end’ for the Iranian regime, they demonstrate that discontent is rife, and will put the government on edge in the run-up to the 2013 presidential elections.

The currency crisis

The rial’s downward trend is not new: the currency fell gradually from 10,000 rials to the dollar in November 2011 to 16,000 rials to the dollar over the summer. But in the past week it has taken an abrupt turn for the worse, dropping to 37,500 rials to the dollar on Tuesday. The exchange rate had improved to 32,000 rials to the dollar by Thursday, but the crisis, which President Ahmadinejad blames on a ‘foreign conspiracy’, shows few signs of abating. Read the rest of this entry »


Iran’s nuclear power: what do we know?

The former US embassy, Tehran

The former US embassy, Tehran. Photo Credit:Flickr Creative Commons/ninara

Dina Esfandiary, research associate and project coordinator for the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament programme, has published an article titled ‘Iran’s Nuclear Power: What Do We Know?’ in Politique Etranger, the journal of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI).

Amid competing opinions on Iran’s true motivations and capabilities, the US’s official assessment is that Iran has not yet decided to ‘go nuclear,’ Esfandiary writes. Yet there are many potential gaps in our knowledge of the issue. How can we be sure if governments have all the necessary intelligence to be certain about Iran’s intentions? In her report, Esfandiary ‘seeks to explore and explain’ how much we really know about Iran’s nuclear powers. She outlines the opposing views on Iran, how intelligence has been gathered and used in the past, and analyses how intelligence could detect whether Iran is attempting to weaponise its capabilities.

Read the full article.


Timely questions on Libya attacks, Middle East at Strategic Survey 2012 launch

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

The recent attacks on US consulates in Libya and Egypt may shift the western perspective of what’s happening in the Arab world, but how things will play out within Libya and Egypt is a far more pressing question, argues Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Regional Security-Middle East.

On 11 September, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – possibly part of a pre-planned strike by a militant group – amid protests over a film about the prophet Mohammed. Protesters also stormed the US consulates in Cairo and in Yemen, and unrest continues to spread.

Hokayem, speaking at the press conference for the Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs launch in London, noted that while the details of the attack are still unclear,  it was worth considering what Stevens himself would have said about the situation:‘[He] would not want revenge or disengagement; he would have argued for renewed investment and attention in these critical periods.’ But what matters most in a strategic sense, Hokayem argues, is the reaction from the Libyan and Egyptian governments: ‘This will be the real test, especially for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their international credibility.’

Hokayem said the Libyan government was very clear in its condemnation, but Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi waited some time before making a statement. Whether the political elites in Libya and Egypt can effectively combat extremist sentiment is crucial for their international legitimacy. ‘This is the tragedy of mainstream Islamist movements,’ said Hokayem.  ‘They can easily be outflanked by more extremist factions that frame everything in terms of identity, and not in terms of public governance choices and not in terms of the need for international recognition.’

Hokayem responded to several questions on Libya and other regional security issues at the launch, where opening remarks by Dr John Chipman, touching on significant security themes in the volume, were followed by a Q & A session addressed to a panel of regional experts. Issues discussed included Middle East security – including Syria, Iran and Israel – terrorism in North Africa, China and Japan’s maritime tensions and the Eurozone crisis.

Another timely question dealt with the likelihood of a strike by Israel against Iran: ‘There is a possibility of an Israeli strike this autumn,’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, in response. ‘But it is a reduced possibility, given the divergence of views in Israel.’

Fitzpatrick explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be acknowledging Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still maintains that Obama’s commitment is not credible.

‘There’s not a consensus in the inner Israeli security cabinet for a strike, and so it’s unlikely,’ said Fitzpatrick.

Watch the full press conference here.


Iran can be stopped

Iran's Sajjil missile. Photo Fars News Agency/Vahi Reza AlaeiOur prolific director of non-proliferation – or ‘the Great Fitzpatrick‘ as some others call him – has the cover story in the latest issue of the British current affairs magazine, Prospect. In the article, which draws on and updates both the strategic dossier on Iran’s nuclear capabilities that he edited last year, and 2010’s Iran missile dossier, he argues that sanctions and the threat of military action may dissuade Tehran from building a bomb.

‘It is not inevitable’, he writes, ‘that Iran will arm itself with nuclear weapons. Nor is a military strike by Israel or the United States the only alternative. Such worst-case assumptions could could lead to another unnecessary war in the Middle East, this time possibly lasting a decade or more.’ See the article at Prospect.


Leap Day in North Korea

North Korean Security Challenges: a net assessmentMark Fitzpatrick, director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme and editor of last year’s Strategic Dossier on North Korean Security Challenges, has an article in Foreign Policy on North Korea’s agreement to suspend uranium enrichment in return for food aid. He writes:

‘When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died late last year, analysts had no clear idea what the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, might mean for the Hermit Kingdom. On Feb. 29 this leap year — appropriately enough — we got an initial hint, when Pyongyang agreed to suspend work at the state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon that it had suddenly revealed to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist in November 2010, to halt nuclear and missile tests, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country after a three-year absence. The new deal with the United States, concluded in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid, will not eradicate the North Korean threat. It augurs well, however, for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts and will be seen internationally as a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama.’

Read the full article in Foreign Policy


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