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. Iran, North Korea -- nuclear proliferation problems in 2006
VIENNA, Dec 5 (AFP) Dec 05, 2006
Iran enriched uranium and North Korea carried out an atomic bomb test in 2006, a year many fear showed the world's losing the battle against the spread of nuclear weapons.

"This has been the worst year for non-proliferation since 1998, when India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons," Mark Fitzpatrick, of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) told AFP.

"Future historians might say this was the year the non-proliferation regime began to unravel," Fitzpatrick said.

US analyst George Perkovich wrote in a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace article posted online in November that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rules "to constrain the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons ... are not self-enforcing, as North Korea's October 9 nuclear test, and painful experience in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere have shown."

Iran's breakthrough in enriching uranium into what can be fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but also atomic bomb material came in defiance of United Nations calls for it not to do this and the threat of possible sanctions.

The Iranian work also scuttled talks with the European Union, sweetened in June with an offer of Chinese, Russian and US participation, towards trade and security benefits in return for Iran's reining in its nuclear ambitions.

The requirement was that Iran suspend all enrichment-related work but Tehran broke this suspension, taking UN atomic agency seals off sensitive equipment in January, making its first enriched uranium in April and continuing after that to increase enrichment capabilities.

The United States claims Iran is using what it says is a peaceful nuclear energy program to in fact hide the development of atomic weapons.

At this point, Iran can carry out only research levels of enrichment but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced plans to boost this within a year up to industrial levels that would use tens of thousands of centrifuges to refine out uranium concentrated with the U-235 isotope.

Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear test in October dispelled any doubts about its progress in making atomic weapons after over a decade of diplomatic wrangling with the international community over the issue.

Fizpatrick said "2007 looks to be no better" as North Korea is likely to test another nuclear weapon, something which will embolden Iran.

And Iran's march to nuclear weapons capacity may lead its neighbors "to consider their own options," Fitzpatrick said.

"But Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for a few more years, and there is still a chance that they can be persuaded to keep their capability latent," Fitzpatrick said.

But he said that "if diplomacy does not stop Iran, 2007 may be the year that military options are more seriously considered."

Another analyst, former French foreign and defense ministry official Francois Heisbourg played down the North Korean threat to the non-proliferation regime, as the world already knew its isolated government had nuclear weapons and North Korea had withdrawn from the NPT in 2003 in order to go its own way.

North Korea "poses less of a precendent (for setting off a new nuclear arms race) than the Iranian business does," Heisbourg said.

Most analysts consider the NPT, which went into effect in 1970, a success after fears in the 1960s that dozens of states would acquire nuclear weapons, instead of the nine believed to have them now.

But Iran, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation for over three years due to suspicious nuclear activities, could change all that.

"Iran is particularly bad because Iran is a fairly open society" and is important in its region and could so be a model for others, Heisbourg said.

"If Iran is seen as able to withdraw from the non-proliferation regime without being deterred, that would signal an end to the NPT," Heisbourg said.

Perkovich said a main flaw in fighting proliferation is "the political failure of the UN Security Council's permanent members to cooperate in enforcing rules in tough cases."

The Security Council has failed to impose sanctions on North Korea and is bickering over Iran, with Iranian trading partners China and Russia so far rejecting the sanctions-oriented line of Britian, France and the United States.

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