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Strobe Talbott was deputy secretary of state under U.S. President Bill Clinton and point man on India and Russia for the United States. He is currently president of the Brookings Institution. He is author most recently of "Engaging India," a memoir that recounts U.S.-India negotiations in the wake of the 1998 Indian nuclear test, and "The Russia Hand."

Talbott spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels prior to a gathering of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Nathan Gardels: Isn't it clear in retrospect that the surprise Indian nuclear test in 1998 was the first shot in this new era of post-Cold War proliferation? You rushed then to India to try to persuade its leaders to join the test ban and non-proliferation treaties, but they refused and instead insisted on the end of "nuclear apartheid" and established the principle of "equal and legitimate security for all" ? a principle now proclaimed from Tehran to Pyongyang.

Strobe Talbott: You are right, the Indian explosion was actually the first shot across the bow, even though the Iranians and North Koreans were already engaged in the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We had a crisis over North Korean nukes, let's not forget, back in 1994. But the Indians were the only ones who went ahead and openly tested their weapons. That took us across a new threshold into an era of proliferation.

Gardels: Fast-forwardto today. Despite European pleas, Iran insists on its right to enrich uranium. North Korea insists on its right to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the United States.Indeed, in its annual report (released Oct. 19) the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies concludes that both the invasion of Iraq and then the failure of the occupation have "emboldened" North Korea and Iran to withstand Western pressure. "Motivations in Pyongyang and Tehran run deep and the U.S. and its allies may not have sufficient instruments of enticement or coercion to achieve disarmament," the report says.

Are we about to witness the second shot in the era of proliferation?

Talbott: Yes. We are on the brink of the second shot. That is the right way to look at it. There is some chance that North Korea and Iran can be stopped from actually pulling the trigger and testing. The Europeans are pressing Iran and the Chinese,and others are pressing the North Koreans. Whoever becomes the next U.S. president is going to have to get directly involved in both of these cases, however, if that chance of keeping North Korea and Iran from crossing the threshold is to be realized.

Gardels: Especially after the U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq, isn't it clear that Iran is intent on producing a nuclear weapon, no matter what?

Talbott: There are those who argue this if you look at the way the world looks from Tehran. They see themselves surrounded (more or less) by nuclear powers -- Pakistan, Russia, China, and then there is Israel.

Iran might settle for having a bomb not in the way India does, but in the way Israel is widely perceived as having a bomb, that is, as an "existential deterrent." Everyone assumes you have it and will use it if you had to, and thus take it into account in their calculations. India, after all, had no more of a deterrent after 1998, when it tested openly, than it did before.

Achieving this with Iran won't be easy to do. It is not a sure thing. But there could be an outcome where Iran goes up to the brink, yet doesn't cross over, even though it can. And it would do that because the U.S., along with Europe, would have succeeded in rebuilding the relationship with Iran.

It is better to have them on this side of the line than the other side. It is less likely then that a hair-trigger situation might erupt in which nukes are actually used. Even after India tested, our effort was to get them to show restraint in the way they deployed their nuclear weapons by not putting warheads on missiles, not putting missiles on the border with Pakistan, not developing deep penetration capability with respect to either Pakistan or China, not to develop a strategic triad that would put missiles in the air and on sea as well as on land. In other words, we encouraged them to reduce even any appearance of a provocative posture or put themselves in a position where they could fall into a hair-trigger crisis.

The crisis in 1999 between India and Pakistan proved our point of precaution instead of provocation in strategic posture.

Gardels: And North Korea?

Talbott: North Korea is a country in meltdown -- or it would be if it weren't in the grip of such a brutal regime. There is famine and even reports of cannibalism. Unlike Iran, a unitary state with thousands of years of continuous history, North Korea is a truncated state, backward and disconnected from the world.

How will all that play out with a highly prosperous South? There is a great risk of instability if North Korea goes. No one knows how it will express its desperation.

Gardels: U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry has raised the spectre of "loose nukes" from the old Soviet Union being as big a threat, in terms of terrorists obtaining a weapon, as Iran and North Korea. Do you agree with that?

Talbott: My sense is that there is a problem, but not an extreme one. We need to be sure there is international monitoring so that "no dangerous animals get out of the barn." As a threat, it is not up there with Iran or North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons. I'm less concerned about the lack of controls of Russia's nuclear weapons than I am about (Russian president) Vladimir Putin's increasing control over Russian society.

Gardels: You and Bill Clinton were accused by George Bush of coddling Boris Yeltsin and looking the other way while the oligarchs looted Russia. Now, Bush is accused of coddling Putin while he commits crimes against humanity in Chechnya and re-centralizes Soviet-style power.

How should the West deal with Russia today?

Talbott: To start with, the U.S. needs to treat Russia as a major foreign policy issue. We haven't done that under Bush. No senior U.S. official today would put Russia on the list of top 10 challenges in the world today. That is puzzling and disturbing. It is territorially the largest country and the second most heavily armed nuclear power. And it is going through a domestic tumult that, as always in Russia, will ultimately determine its relations with the outside world.

American presidents have always had personal relationships with their Russian counterparts going back to FDR and Stalin and Nixon and Brezhnev, Reagan and Bush with Gorbachev. The question is what they do with those personal relationships. Clinton used the strong Yeltsin relationship to press -- successfully -- for arms reduction, democracy, market reform and decentralization in Russia. The relationship with Putin and Bush is only about essentially one issue: the war on terrorism.

Bush hasn't used the relationship to address the tougher set of issues of what is happening inside Russia -- the destruction in Chechnya, the virtual elimination of a free broadcast media, the (jailed former Yukos chief executive Mikhail) Khodorkovsky affair, the end of elections for provincial governors, the consolidation of power in the center. . . .The list goes on.

Like Henry Kissinger, (National Security Adviser) Condi Rice came to office with a classic "realpolitik" view that states deal with states and don't mess around in each other's internal affairs.

This is wrong. The way Russia evolves internally is of immense national security importance to the West. Historically, the nature of Russian foreign policy is a direct function of the nature of the Russian system. We saw that in the 20th century,and we will see it in the 21st.

For this reason, the argument that we shouldn't interfere in Russia's internal affairs is outmoded. Well, we live in an interdependent world. Ever since the beginningof the "Helsinki" and OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) process back in the 1970s, it has been legitimate to get involved in issueslike human rights and freedom of the media within other countries. It is what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we should stick with that principle today.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Service, INC. (Distributed 10/25/04)