U.S. experience with 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea is not a reason to reject nuclear deal with Iran
There are too many dissimilarities between the governments, motivations and ideologies of North Korea and Iran for the U.S. experience with the 1994 Agreed Framework to serve as any useful guide for the Iranian nuclear deal.
Faced with the prospect of a hostile, nuclear-armed North Korea in 1994, the Clinton administration reached a deal that required the North to give up its weapons program in return for energy assistance, the lifting of sanctions and better relations with the United States. In the late 1990s, however, we caught the North Koreans cheating and, early in the George W. Bush administration, the agreement collapsed. Today, the North’s reinvigorated bomb program may be poised, as Mr. Netanyahu pointed out in his recent speech to Congress, to produce as many as 100 nuclear weapons over the next five years.
Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not. Without the 1994 deal, North Korea would have built the bomb sooner, stockpiled weapons more quickly and amassed a much larger arsenal by now. Intelligence estimates in the early 1990s concluded that the North’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. More than 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened.
The collapse of the North Korea deal has been used to argue that it is impossible to conduct diplomacy with rogue states. But the only litmus test that matters is whether an agreement serves our national interest, is better than having no deal at all, and is preferable to military force. The arrangement with Iran appears to be well on its way to meeting that standard.
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The agreements with Iran and North Korea are far more different than they are similar. The main differences were that the agreed framework with North Korea focused specifically on its plutonium program and failed to address uranium enrichment, and did not have sufficient implementation oversight. North Korea also had already produced more than enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon; this is not the case of Iran. The framework agreement with Iran includes eliminating the plutonium and severely restricting the uranium pathways, with extraordinarily complex monitoring and implementation. The verification measures already implemented under the JPOA and the new obligations anticipated in the final comprehensive agreement are far stronger and of longer duration than those in the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Under the agreement, Iran will not have enough nuclear material for a single nuclear weapon. In the 20 years since the Agreed Framework, the United States has developed more robust intelligence and verification capabilities that are, in any case, more effectively deployed towards a country such as Iran compared to the reclusive Hermit Kingdom.30
The North Korea case reinforces the need for the United States and others to comply with their obligations. The North Korea’s leaders have argued that one of the reasons it decided to break the Agreed Framework agreement was that the United States failed to comply with its obligation to provide more heavy oil fuel and assistance to North Korea. The United States must not give Iran an excuse to withdraw from a comprehensive agreement.
The North Korea case remains, nonetheless, the only case of the failure to successfully maintain safeguards agreements negotiated under the nonprolifera- tion treaty and a second such case must be avoided. Tehran, unlike Pyongyang, has to consider public opinion, which is strongly demanding the end of international pariah status and economically painful sanctions. Iran is not a democracy, but it is far from a dictatorship.
North Korea is complicated. The case of North Korea is unquestionably a non-proliferation failure. The historical facts of the case, however, have been overtaken by legend. As we consider how policy failed, keep in mind these four questions:
- During the eight years in which North Korea was constrained by the nuclear agreement of 1994, how many nuclear weapons or weapons equivalent of fissile material did North Korea add to its arsenal, according to the best estimates of the U.S. intelligence community? Answer: none.
- From 2003 to 2008, when the U.S. confronted North Korea for cheating, abrogated the agreement, and sought to isolate and sanction Pyongyang, how many nuclear weapons or weapons equivalent of fissile material did it add to its arsenal? Answer: According to U.S. intelligence estimates, enough material for 2-to-9 more bombs.
- Under which treatment – agreements or confrontation – did North Korea conduct a nuclear weapons test? Answer: confrontation.
- Under which treatment – negotiations or confrontation – both in the Clinton–Bush and Obama periods did North Korea build its nuclear arsenal of more than a dozen weapons that it has today, according to U.S. intelligence estimates? Answer: confrontation.
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Another analogy that policymakers pursuing isolation might hope to draw is to North Korea. If we have managed to live with a nuclear North Korea, perhaps we will be able to tolerate a nuclear Iran. This line of thinking neglects the major dissimilarities between the geostrategic positions of North Korea and Iran. North Korea borders China, a much larger and stronger neighbor that has the capability to keep the smaller country’s more aggressive tendencies in check, and a large contingent of U.S. and South Korean troops are stationed just across the well-fortified Demilitarized Zone. In the case of Iran, there is neither a larger regional power that can exert influence over Tehran, nor the prospect of a significant U.S. military presence at the border. More telling, however, are precisely the ways in which North Korea continues to threaten international peace. Not only has it acted aggressively against South Korea – including sinking ships without provocation, bombarding civilian populations, kidnapping civilians and launching cyber attacks against government and civilian networks – but it is also an egregious proliferator of missile and nuclear technology to rogue regimes around the globe. Indeed, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, far from being contained, is one of the reasons that Iran is so close to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. Once it attains that capability, Iran will likely follow in North Korea’s footsteps: taking a belligerent stance towards its neighbors and sharing dangerous secrets with the enemies of international order.
Iran and the DPRK—as countries—do share some attributes, including a pattern of violating international norms regarding nonproliferation, terrorism, and human rights. The agreements are also similar in certain ways. Like the Agreed Framework, the prospective arrangement with Iran will reward bad behavior to a degree. And animosity between the executive and legislative branches greatly complicates the prospect that the United States will live up to its side of an agreement with Iran. The U.S. Congress could take actions that could lead to Iranian brinksmanship within the nuclear domain as well as crises between the United States and its international partners. In the case of the DPRK, a similar combination of factors interrupted the United States’ fulfillment of terms and contributed to a series of minicrises.
But the two states and their societies differ in important ways, as do the Agreed Framework and the proposed deal with Iran. These differences combine to create much stronger incentives for Iran to fulfill a nuclear deal than existed for the DPRK. For instance, a final agreement with Iran will be vastly more comprehensive in its terms and verification provisions. Negotiated and backed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and codified in a Security Council resolution, the Iran deal will, if completed, contain much stronger elements to deter cheating and more meaningful incentives to motivate compliance than the Agreed Framework did.
The Lausanne arrangement is not perfect, but it is far better than any realistic alternative, and much more comprehensive than the North Korea framework. Through significant reductions in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, constraints on its R&D and unprecedented verification mechanisms, it would extend the time needed for Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb from just a few months to more than a year, until at least 2025. And even after some of the constraints on Iran’s infrastructure are lifted, a comprehensive inspections regime will remain in place, and all the options open to us now to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will be open to us then. Rejecting the opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in this way based on the hope that down the road Iran will agree to a better deal, or that the military option provides an effective alternative to it, is a luxury outside actors may possess, but it would be an enormous gamble for the president of the United States.
There are differences between Iran now and North Korea then that may actually play in our favor. Iran’s leadership is arguably more rational and susceptible to public pressure to improve the economy, our military option is more credible this time because Iran cannot destroy a nearby capital with artillery as Pyongyang can destroy Seoul, and Iran does not yet have enough nuclear material for a weapon, whereas North Korea probably did. Congress should keep these differences in mind as it considers whether to support a nuclear deal with Iran. But it should also keep in mind an important potential lesson from the previous experience: Rejecting an imperfect deal can result in no deal at all. And no deal at all, in the most relevant recent case, resulted in a new, and very dangerous, nuclear weapons state.
The Agreed Framework included full normalization between the US and North Korea. For Pyongyang, it was a high-priority request, but seemed an impossible task for Washington to achieve quickly with a regime so vilified and on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
One result was US political foot-dragging that angered North Korea and led to provocations such as North Korea’s 1998 test of a ballistic missile that flew over the Japanese island of Honshu.
The Iran deal seeks to sidestep this problem by limiting the talks to the nuclear issue only, recognizing that 36 years of mutual US-Iran hostility – which is still an article of faith for hard-liners on both sides – won’t disappear anytime soon.
“I would say that’s a strength, because you are not pushing either system farther than it’s prepared to go now,” says George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The Iranians understand that you’re still going to be talking about human rights, the sanctions on terrorism are still going to be there,” says Mr. Perkovich. “We understand that somebody’s going to stand up [in Iran] at Friday prayers and say, ‘Death to America.’ They are still going to support Hezbollah. There is an agreement that there is still going to be competition, so it’s less pretend.”
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[PRO] The United States has had this type of disarmament agreement with several hostile regimes, including North Korea, Libya, and Syria. The broad agreement with Libya and chemical weapons agreement with Syria resulted in effective disarmament. The 1994 agreement with North Korea failed, when North Korea pursued a covert enrichment program in violation of the agree- ment. Of course, the U.S. doesn’t know whether the agreement with Iran will be successful or not. But–compared to the North Korean case–Washington has three advantages. First, it has always had a much stronger intelligence capability against Iran and therefore more ability to catch Tehran cheating before it could get close to the bomb. Second, Iran is much more suscep- tible to international economic and political sanctions and its government is much more influenced by domestic political pressure. Third, the U.S. has more credible military options against Iran and therefore more ability to deter and, if necessary, take action if Iran tries to cheat or renege on the agreement.
The real lessons from North Korea have to do with why a deal with such a promising start ultimately collapsed. While reaching an agreement is tough, making it stick is even tougher.
The United States and its partners must avoid the “problem solved” mentality that inevitably follows landmark agreements. This mentality took hold in 1994 as senior officials moved on to deal with other foreign policy challenges while implementation, left in the hands of lower-level bureaucrats, suffered. As a result, the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions. This does not excuse the North’s behavior, but it does show these deals require constant attention.
The Iran framework is extraordinarily complex, and will require monitoring to ensure that all the moving pieces — limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, providing for inspections and lifting sanctions — are effectively implemented. One way to do this is for the United States and its partners to establish a body that meets regularly to oversee implementation.
Diplomacy is the only path to stop Kim Jong Un from obtaining a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States. Unfortunately, as President Trump grapples with the North Korean threat, he seems to have forgotten that same lesson we learned with Iran. After pursuing an atomic bomb for decades, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was finally blocked when the world’s major powers secured the historic P5+1 agreement with Tehran two years ago. Trump is now attempting to unravel it.
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The success of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal has reared optimism for world powers to resolve the North Korean crisis in a similar fashion. But differences between the rogue nations may make that tough.
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The authors argue that the nuclear agreement with Iran is very different from the one with North Korea.
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The authors disagree with recent criticism of the 1994 Agreed Framework, noting that it was successful in preventing a North Korean nuclear breakout from 1994 up until its collapse in 2002.
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