The World's Greatest Nuclear Fear: Will Iran Pull a North Korea?

The interim Iranian nuclear framework is a vague accord with significant shortcomings. Moreover, the ink had barely dried before Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disputed the Obama administration’s depiction of what had been agreed to.

Khamenei declared that all sanctions against Iran must be removed immediately upon signature of a final accord in three months. He also insisted that Iran would not permit inspections of its military sites. Khamenei’s comments run counter to Obama administration claims that “international inspectors will have unprecedented access” to all Iranian nuclear facilities. The administration had also asserted that Tehran agreed that United States, EU, and UN sanctions would be “retained for much of the duration of the deal” and only incrementally reduced.

We’ve been down this path before… with North Korea. In September 2005, the Six Party Talks joint statement was followed by dueling U.S. and North Korean press statements. Portrayals of how quickly Washington would lift sanctions and remove Pyongyang from the state sponsors of terrorism list diverged widely.

Given the similarities between the two sets of nuclear negotiations, the Korean experience should provide hard-earned guidance for American negotiators on how the Iranian agreement should be completed.

Don’t Do Your End-Zone Dance Too Early

Clinton administration officials initially claimed the 1994 Agreed Framework had resolved the North Korean nuclear problem. The Obama administration entered office thinking it would achieve dramatic breakthroughs with North Korea (and Russia, the Muslim world, etc.) and proclaimed the U.S. would never accept a nuclear North Korea or Iran.

A Bad Cop Is Good to Have

The Agreed Framework was not the immaculate diplomatic conception that its supporters claim. Talk of war with North Korea was rife in the mid-1990s, and Clinton administration officials claim they were debating attack options when surprised by a preliminary agreement midwifed by a rogue Jimmy Carter.  Israel’s threats of attack similarly focused Tehran’s leaders on the penalties of defiance.

Vague Text Begets Vague Progress

Experts still debate whether the Agreed Framework prohibited North Korea’s covert uranium program. The Six-Party Talks relied on a diplomatic gimmick whereby the plurality of “nuclear programs” was cited by U.S. negotiators as clearly proscribing uranium weapons. Pyongyang, not surprisingly, disagreed. Vaguely worded agreements may, in the words of U.S. Six-Party Talks negotiator Christopher Hill allow the “bicycle to keep moving forward lest it fall over,” but papering over loopholes merely postpones an inevitable collapse of the agreement.

Even a “Final” Agreement is Never Final

Vague text also allows countries to cheat while still semi-legitimately claiming compliance. Like a good defense lawyer, Pyongyang uses ambiguity to obfuscate and avoid punishment. To prevent a crisis, negotiators even become willing to negotiate away their laws and previous treaties.

Verify, Verify, Verify

President Ronald Reagan’s dictum “Trust but Verify” was reflected in the extensively detailed verification protocols that enabled the United States to have arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Precisely defining verification mechanisms and responsibilities of all parties may hinder completion of negotiations, but is critical for ensuring the long-term viability of an agreement. Claiming “unprecedented access” is no substitute for unambiguous inspection rights.

Violations Make a Shaky Foundation for Negotiations

Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and Iran was precipitated by their violating previous agreements and UN resolutions – hardly the basis for confidence they will abide by yet more accords. Negotiators should remember the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

Pyongyang serially deceived, denied, and defied the international community. Yet arms control proponents responded to growing evidence of North Korean cheating by doubting, dismissing, deflecting, denouncing, deliberating, debating, dawdling, delaying, demanding, and eventually dealing.

These “experts” initially rejected intelligence reports of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program, its uranium weapons program, complicity in a Syrian nuclear reactor, and steadily increasing nuclear and missile capabilities.

Evidence of Cheating Doesn’t Arrive Gift-Wrapped

After decades of debating whether Iran even had a nuclear weapons program, experts now claim that U.S. intelligence will be able to unequivocally identify and then convince U.S. policymakers and UN representatives to impose sufficient penalties to deter Iran from nuclear weapons, all within one year.

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

The UN has shown a remarkable ability to emit a timid squeak of indignation when its resolutions are blatantly violated and then only after extensive negotiations and compromise. Hampered by Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the UN Security Council has been limited to lowest-common denominator responses.

Negotiations Allow Inching Across Redlines

Alternating provocative behavior and a willingness to negotiate enabled North Korea to manipulate the international community into timidity about imposing penalties and acquiescence to repeated violations.

By maintaining strategic ambiguity on their nuclear programs, Pyongyang and Tehran, like the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, are gaining international acceptance of activities that were previously declared “unacceptable.”

Proponents for diplomatically resolving the North Korean and Iranian nuclear problems argue that, without negotiations, Pyongyang and Tehran would continue to develop nuclear weapons. Yet, North Korea continued to augment its arsenal while negotiating and even after signing numerous agreements not to do so. It is expecting too much to assume Iran has not learned that lesson from North Korea—a friendly tutor who has done so much to help Tehran advance both its nuclear and missile programs.

 - Bruce Klingner is the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in The National Interest