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. Iran poses bigger problem to US than North Korea in nuclear row
WASHINGTON (AFP) Sep 28, 2005
Iran is proving to be a bigger headache for the United States than North Korea even though the communist state probably has nuclear bombs and the Islamic republic may be years away from producing one, analysts say.

"In terms of threats -- at this point -- the Bush administration sees the Iranian regime as more threatening than the North Korean regime," said Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Among the US fears, he said, was sensitive Iranian nuclear technology falling into the hands of radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which Iran has backed.

"The question exists what kinds of ties Iran's Revolutionary Guards have with militant groups and would they be prepared to provide assistance in some very nasty weapons," Einhorn, a former top non-proliferation official in the US State Department, told a media briefing.

There is also concern in Washington over alleged Iranian attempts to destabilize Iraq and provide shelter to Al-Qaeda militants, blamed for the September 11 2001 deadly attacks on the United States.

Although both "axis of evil" states Iran and North Korea are considered state sponsors of terrorism by the United States, Iran poses a bigger threat, Einhorn said.

"Nobody believes that North Korea is sponsoring terrorism these days whereas there is a real concern about Iran's sponsorship of Hezabollah and other Middle East terrorist groups," he said.

North Korea may have probably enough plutonium for between two and nine nuclear bombs but "they are very, very unlikely to use them," Joseph Cirincione, Director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AFP.

"Deterrence is alive and well, they know what happens next," said the weapons expert.

Based on nuclear capability alone, Cirincione said North Korea had to be considered "a greater security threat" than Iran "but however I do believe that North Korea's threat is effectively contained."

Even in terms of North Korea's conventional weapons threat, there is a growing assessment among experts that Pyongyang no longer poses an invasion risk to the US-backed south.

"Sure, the North Koreans can do tremendous damage in South Korea through rocket attacks, artillery and missiles but invading the South is totally unrealistic in this stage of the game," said Einhorn.

Experts also point to the stark contrast between North Korea, a small, poor and isolated nation with no key resources, to Iran, the holder of the world's second-largest reserves of oil and gas which has threatened to use the prized commodities as a bargaining chip in its nuclear row with the West.

"So while there is no evidence at all that Iran has any significant quantity of nuclear material or any nuclear weapons, Iran is a much more difficult nuclear issue to resolve for the United States," Cirincione said.

The nuclear row with Iran erupted about two years ago after the UN's atomic agency's inspectors uncovered evidence that it had concealed efforts to enrich uranium, a crucial building block for nuclear weapons.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and Iran but it is increasingly having bilateral meetings with Pyongyang even while multilateral talks are underway to end the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula.

"But they are not prepared to face the Iranian regime in part because they hope they can delegitimize that regime and there can be regime change," Einhorn said.

North Korea pledged last week to disband its atomic weapons network in return for energy aid and security guarantees.

Although negotiations are still in the early stage, experts see a path for the United States to resolve its three-year nuclear standoff with North Korea.

With Iran however, they expect the confrontation to escalate following the adoption last week of a resolution at the UN atomic agency to report the Islamic state to the UN Security Council for violating its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The action followed Tehran's decision last month to suspend US-backed negotiations with the European Union.

"They seem to be in a nuclear game of chicken and both cars are right smack in the middle of the road and heading towards each other in full speed. We don't know what is going to happen, we have to wait for somebody to swerve," Cirincione said.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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