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An interim N-freeze for N. Korea, Iran

WHILE THE WORLD watches the vital transition in Iraq, the other wheels of the "axis of evil" keep dangerously turning. Last week Iran signaled that it would resume its uranium enrichment activities, and North Korea hinted it might detonate a nuclear device.

US officials properly seek the verifiable termination and dismantlement of all nuclear weapon-related activities and facilities. But pursuing it through an all-or-nothing approach imperils US security by effectively sidelining diplomacy while Tehran and Pyongyang step up their nuclear activities.

Irreversible closure of a nuclear weapon program generally flows from profound political changes in a regime. In Libya, for example, Moammar Khadafy decided he needed cooperation with the outside world more than his weapons of mass destruction.

No one expects a Libyan-style epiphany in Tehran or Pyongyang. Further, regime change may not occur before those regimes have assembled substantial nuclear arsenals. Iranian hard-liners have been strengthened in this year's parliamentary elections, while Kim Jong Il has outlasted every political leader who has sought to contain his nuclear ambitions.

Seeking a comprehensive solution while eschewing interim steps grants a gift to the bomb-builders: time. Since 2002, North Korea has reopened its program, separated up to five or six bombs' worth of plutonium, and produced fresh plutonium every day in its restarted 5-megawatt reactor. Iran may use its reprieve to start producing highly enriched uranium, which is easier to fashion into a nuclear explosive. The recent US proposal to allow initial benefits to flow to Pyongyang in advance of a final deal represents a welcome shift toward a more effective approach. An interim freeze can be a vital first step toward our ultimate goal of stopping and dismantling existing nuclear efforts. Specifically, we should forge a united international front to present Tehran and Pyongyang with a clear choice. If they agree to a verifiable freeze for a significant period -- say, 10 years -- in their efforts to obtain the plutonium and highly enriched uranium used for nuclear bombs, during that period they will receive security assurances and economic benefits. If they do not, they will confront increased pressure and isolation from the international community.

The size and shape of a freeze as well as the inducements to be offered must be worked out through negotiations, but abandonment of a rigid take-it-or-leave-it strategy is more likely to gain the allied cooperation needed to make both carrots and sticks credible. So far Tehran and Pyongyang have not suffered significant penalty for their defiance of international norms or been offered significant rewards for compliance. Fatter carrots and stronger sticks may finally force leaders to make hard choices between their nuclear programs and the fundamental health and viability of their regimes. A freeze is a tourniquet, not a solution, and even so will be difficult to negotiate. Effective verification will be hard to achieve, even with more intrusive international inspections. Fashioning persuasive carrots and sticks will be harder for Iran than North Korea, given the former's oil wealth and extensive multilateral relationships. But a freeze would give the international community time to devise more carrots and sticks to use as leverage to obtain a permanent agreement to terminate and dismantle dangerous nuclear facilities.

Some will object that a freeze that does not end the nuclear threats from Tehran and Pyongyang will reward blackmail, but that is a red herring. A freeze with either country should go beyond existing obligations in scope and verification measures, and the essence of diplomacy is to confer benefits in exchange for undertaking expanded international obligations.

Others will object that negotiation with the surviving members of the "axis of evil" is useless -- wicked regimes will exploit a freeze and the complacency it could spawn to continue their nuclear weapons programs covertly. But similar concerns did not prevent negotiation of interim arms control agreements with the Soviets, which verifiably enhanced US security even though it did not reduce the need for vigilance.

While an interim freeze must not sway us from our ultimate objectives, each year that avoids increased nuclear dangers enhances our security. Ultimately, time will remove both Kim Jong Il and the current Iranian regime. If a freeze buys enough time to outlast them or to find a comprehensive resolution of the issue before Pyongyang and Iran unleash their nuclear arsenals, we win. If we seek instant victory regardless of the dangers, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Daniel Poneman, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is coauthor of "Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis." 

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