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After a year characterised by leadership transitions in the US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea, political paralysis has pushed many old nuclear problems into 2013. And through the momentum this has afforded them, they will almost certainly colour the coming year.
Chief among these old problems is the Iranian nuclear crisis. Despite increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Israel and the implementation of further sanctions, Iran's stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium almost tripled in 2012 - increasing the threat to what fragile stability exists in the Middle East. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can neither confirm nor deny whether Iran's nuclear programme has a military dimension, and the P5+1 group of nations has yet to negotiate a satisfactory conclusion to this crisis.
This was in part due to the US Presidential elections in November. The lingering presence of the crisis in US election debates meant that few risks were taken by the US, and consequently the P5+1, to compromise with Iran in the latter half of 2012. And while the IAEA ended the year with a small step towards resolving its dispute with Iran, the US and its partners in the P5+1 start 2013 no closer to their goal than they were a year ago. Unless Iran dramatically reduces its production of 20%-enriched uranium (or significantly increases the conversion of enriched uranium to less-sensitive forms) its stockpile will probably cross Israel's hazy red line of 240kg before mid-2013. If this occurs, the Israeli airstrikes that were narrowly avoided in 2012 may yet haunt 2013.
Elections in South Korea and Japan were also coloured by North Korea's successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket in December, which also cast a shadow over the newly-formed Politburo Standing Committee in China. While the timing of the launch ostensibly commemorated the first anniversary of Kim Jong-Il's death, it served equally well as a reminder that North Korea is still prepared to use provocative displays of power to influence regional debates. The launch was rightly met by familiar condemnation from the international community, including an important call from China to abide by UN Security Council Resolutions. However, the Security Council itself has yet to add its voice to this chorus - something it did within four days of North Korea's failed rocket launch in April 2012.
While it is too early to judge the impact of the launch, if North Korea feels that provocation has proven productive (and that it may dodge an assertive response from the UN), it may be tempted to consider further provocation. Satellite imagery analysis suggests that North Korea has maintained a readiness to test a nuclear warhead within two week's notice. And if North Korea does indeed hope to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on a modified Unha-3 rocket, it will have to test a reliable, small-scale warhead.
Finally, since Vladimir Putin's controversial return to the Kremlin in March of 2012, a distinct chill has come over US-Russia relations. While the 'reset' in relations between the two powers successfully secured modest reductions in the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two states, it has since stumbled over the deployment of US ballistic missile defence systems in Europe, and fallen over Russia's tit-for-tat response to the blacklisting of select Russian individuals by the US Magnitsky act at the end of 2012.
Two important symptoms of this deteriorating relationship will manifest themselves this year. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which safeguarded and dismantled weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union, and the Megatons to Megawatts Program, which converted Russian weapons-origin fissile material into fuel for US reactors, will be dropped by Russia before 2013 is out. Without a thaw in relations between the US and Russia, and the reinvigoration of bilateral nuclear arms control between the two powers, 2013 may leave the global nuclear disarmament movement in a worse state than it found it.
Thankfully, the very same leadership transitions that exacerbated these issues may yet contain their solution. Park Geun-Hye, the victor of South Korea's elections, has advertised a policy of 'trustpolitik' towards North Korea, which cautiously suggests the South may pursue an incremental series of engagements, starting with economic and humanitarian projects, and potentially evolving into deeper ties if Kim Jong-un cooperates. If Ms Park is already offering a more engaged approach to North Korea, she may have already removed one of North Korea's incentives to provoke.
Kim Jong-un's New Year speech also contained hints that the North might be prepared to initiate a less hostile dialogue with their neighbours. The speech contained far fewer pejorative references to South Korean 'puppets', and perhaps unsurprisingly indicated that the North would be receptive to economic and humanitarian assistance. This speech has rightly been met with some scepticism, containing as it did no new policy towards the South. However, as suggested by Edward Schwark, the previous policies of isolation and sanction adopted by the international community have failed to halt North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes. Perhaps it is time for a new approach. Given the slim chances of a restart to the six-party talks (between the North, its neighbours, and the US), more direct engagement between the North and South, particularly if conducted in partnership with China, may yield a more sustained and productive dialogue in 2013.
Having secured a second term, President Obama may also consider a more flexible approach to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The elements of a probable resolution are relatively clear: in return for some sanctions relief and an acknowledgement of Iran's right to enrich uranium to a limited extent, Iran should restrict enrichment activities to below 20% in line with its civil nuclear power programme, convert its existing 20% stockpile into less sensitive forms, and sign up for more intrusive inspections by the IAEA. The problem is no longer what to offer in negotiations, but who should offer it and how. A new approach may also help here.
For instance, Russia and Iran have indicated their openness towards direct US-Iran negotiations, which could iron out Iranian misconceptions regarding America's true negotiating goals, and reassure Israel that the US is committed to exploring all possible options for resolution. Prior to the November elections, the US administration was quick to discount suggestions that such talks had been agreed to in principle. After the election, President Obama may feel he has the political security needed to risk such an approach. He should not waste time: Iranian elections in June will bring the same 'silly season' that froze US diplomacy to Tehran, potentially with similar consequences.
Unfortunately Obama's political security may not provide him with many options for mending the tattered ties between the US and Russia. Obama's famous off-mic comment to Dmitri Medvedev in March that he would have 'more flexibility' to negotiate European missile defence deployments after the November election was true, but flexibility may not be enough. Some suspect that Putin is portraying the US as a straw man to the Russian people in an attempt to deflect popular discontent from himself to an external 'enemy'. After all, Russia's demands regarding the deployment of European missile defence systems could never be accepted by the US (and sold to NATO), no matter how much flexibility re-election provides. If these suspicions are true, there is not much Obama can legitimately do to address Putin's concerns.
The expiration of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Megatons to Megawatts Program suggests that traditional methods of engagement between the two, which involved pouring billions of Dollars into developing Russian infrastructure, will no longer work. To thaw out relations between the US and Russia and reignite their approach to bilateral arms control, some lateral thinking is needed.
Former foreign policy chiefs from the US and Russia are optimistic that an avenue for reconciliation may be found among alternative areas of common interest, such as trade and Afghanistan. This perspective forgets that if Putin's primary interest is in shoring up domestic support by demonising the US, such fiddling around the edges may be unproductive. Putin's insecurity must be addressed directly by reaffirming that Russia does indeed have an important role to play on the international stage. Working with Russia towards a solution to the conflict in Syria, and promoting Russia's role in a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, may be good places to start.