THE STANDOFF and subsequent agreement between the United States and North Korea is a vivid reminder that procrastination is dangerous and expensive when dealing with would-be nuclear regimes. The world had suspected for a decade that the dictatorship of Kim Il Sung was secretly developing the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. But only after the evidence became overwhelming, and the possession of such weapons a real threat, did the United States and others begin to develop a serious response.
The most prominent candidate for the next proliferation crisis is Iran. But, because Iran's nuclear program is still extremely small and U.S. leverage is at its peak, there is a good chance of averting a full-blown crisis -- if the U.S. government acts now, with the same determination that was shown in the talks with North Korea.
When Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci sat down with the North Korean negotiator, he had only a few cards to play. North Korea probably already had the makings of one or more bombs, and its conventional military threat to South Korea made coercion an excessively risky and probably unworkable option. In the end, Mr. Gallucci got the best deal he could. Rather than quibble about the terms, we should profit from the experience so we have a better hand to play the next time.
Iran -- which is actively seeking nuclear-related equipment from many sources -- has a small research reactor that it purchased from the United States more than 20 years ago. Last year, Iran signed contracts with China and Russia for three nuclear power stations. Iran also attempted to acquire more dangerous research reactors from Argentina and China, but the United States intervened to squelch both deals.
Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a thorough inspection of its known nuclear facilities last April resulted in a clean bill of health by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran's government flatly denies the existence of any nuclear weapons program, claiming that its interests are purely peaceful and oriented toward nuclear power production. This does not ring true. Iran's reserves of natural gas are sufficient to meet its domestic power needs for centuries. President Hashemi Rafsanjani, in his periodic reviews of Iran's energy policies, has never referred to plans for domestic nuclear power generation. The world is right to treat Iran's behavior with suspicion.
But Iran is not North Korea. There is time to develop an effective strategy before Iran's nuclear program gets to the crisis stage. Exactly how much time is hard to say. Although the CIA estimates that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within eight to 10 years, the nuclear power reactors that Iran is purchasing from Russia and China will take at least eight years to build, and they will not produce any irradiated nuclear fuel until after about 10 years' operation, if ever. In fact, these light-water nuclear plants are roughly comparable to those being offered cost-free to North Korea in return for its agreement to give up its current graphite reactor technology.
Nevertheless, after the sobering experience with North Korea and Iraq, Iranian intentions are in themselves grounds for concern by regional and external powers alike. Even if Iran is ultimately unsuccessful in building a nuclear weapon, the mere act of trying could trigger fears and possible counteractions in the region. What can be done to deflect Iran from the nuclear path?
The real lesson of the North Korean case is that isolation of potential offenders, even when combined with a strict international ban on the sale of nuclear technology, is not sufficient to solve the ultimate problem. Real progress was achieved only after contact was established with the leadership in Pyongyang and Korean security concerns began to be addressed directly.
Contact with an estranged regime does not imply approval. It must be based on a cool assessment of U.S. interests and a calculation that those interests are better served by engagement than by a comfortable, but ostrich-like, detachment.
That judgment is particularly difficult in the case of Iran because of the bitter experience of the 1979-81 hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra affair, as well as Iran's hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process and its suspected support of terrorist groups. However, the present U.S. policy of "containment" is not producing positive changes in Iran's behavior. Our policy is openly disregarded and privately mocked even by many of our friends in the region, as I learned in a meeting this summer with representatives of Persian Gulf states.
The United States is the dominant power in the gulf. It need not -- and should not -- make any unilateral concessions to Iran. Present efforts to ban sales of nuclear weapons technology to Iran should be stringently maintained.
At the same time, the Clinton administration should name a senior representative, such as Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau, to undertake discussions with Iran without preconditions.
This approach would add a new seriousness of purpose to U.S. expressions of willingness to talk to Iran. The naming of a high-level interlocutor would challenge Iran to put its concerns on the table in an authoritative dialogue. The experience with North Korea demonstrates that direct engagement with a hostile and radical state can sometimes produce unexpected results.
Gary Sick is a former National Security Council staff member for Iran.