SEPARATE international negotiations with both Iran and North Korea over nuclear programs that are - according to both governments - designed to produce nuclear energy, but that - according to the rest of the world, notably the United States - could also give them a nuclear weapons capacity are apparently dead in the water at the moment.
In the case of Iran, it was the United Kingdom, France, and Germany who were carrying the ball. With North Korea, it was South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States itself which were in play.
In neither case is the stalling out of talks the end of the game. In both cases, the negotiations did show clearly just how hard the objective sought is to achieve.
In the case of Iran, the carrots and the sticks that are being employed are impressive. The Europeans have offered the Iranians an attractive combination of economic and political incentives to go along. These include, for example, membership in the World Trade Organization, high on Iran's "most wanted" list. On the "stick" side, the Europeans may have the ability to achieve in the United Nations Security Council an economic sanctions measure against Iran.
In what was either a stunning example of brinkmanship negotiating, or a true reflection of Iran's self-confidence or willingness to confront the world, the government of newly elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Europeans that the negotiations were going too slowly and that it was going to restart uranium conversion at its Isfahan facility, suspended since November.
This move prompted the Europeans to call an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna for this week. One outcome of that meeting could be an IAEA reference of a complaint against Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council could then, in principle, levy economic sanctions against Iran. The United States has always wanted such sanctions, but had agreed to let the Europeans explore the negotiating path as a first step before seeking sanctions.
It is, however, unlikely that the Security Council would vote such sanctions in the end: Russia is fully involved in joint nuclear power projects with Iran and would likely veto any such resolution; China might also. Given that outcome waiting at the end of the road at the U.N. Security Council, what might occur instead is a certain amount of huffing and puffing in Vienna this week, followed by the Europeans sweetening the pot for the Iranians.
The Iranians could then continue with nuclear energy production, under close IAEA oversight, and with closer cooperation with the Europeans in the nuclear energy and other fields.
North Korea during the recent 13 days of negotiations with South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States also showed itself to be a tough nut to crack, in spite of its formidable poverty. Its government, too, is showing itself adept at holding out, refusing to give up its nuclear options even under pressure from China, which has a firm grip on its throat through energy and food supply, and from South Korea, clearly ready to pay dearly to improve relations.
The absolutist U.S. position - that both Iran and North Korea must give up any nuclear weapons production capacity - is more an ideal than a realizable objective. It is undercut sharply by the fact that the United States is close friends with - one could even say, allied with - three countries, India, Israel, and Pakistan, that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that accept no IAEA oversight of their facilities, and all of which have nuclear weapons.
Iran and North Korea have signed the non-proliferation treaty, have accepted IAEA supervision, although North Korea has suspended it for the time being, and apparently don't have nuclear weapons yet. At least Iran doesn't. Whether North Korea does or does not remains open to speculation.
The motivations of Iran and North Korea are different. In the case of Iran, it considers that it does have a nuclear-armed enemy in its region in the form of Israel, from which it needs to be able to defend itself. In principle North Korea would consider South Korea and Japan to a degree to be regional threats to it. Its post-Korean war relations with the United States, with thousands of American troops remaining in South Korea, are hard to define in terms of threat.
On the economic side, even though Iran has oil it would argue that it still needs to develop nuclear energy. In the case of North Korea, it can be simply described as a disaster. It seeks, albeit somewhat erratically, relief from its desperate poverty through the nuclear threat that it might pose.
Whatever policy considerations lie behind the positions of Tehran and Pyongyang on their nuclear programs, it seems clear that continued negotiations offer the only path that is really open at this point. Even if the Bush Administration were crazy enough to attack - or allow someone else to attack- one or the other of them at this time, U.S. force limitations basically rule out the military route. It is also hard to argue logically that India, Pakistan, and Israel should be allowed to have not only nuclear energy programs but also nuclear weapons, while both are denied to Iran and North Korea.
What makes sense in these two situations - as it did in Iraq before the war - is that both countries be belted firmly into energy-only programs, with heavy IAEA oversight. That goal is almost certainly achievable through an enriched program of economic carrots extended to both of them in negotiations.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.