Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Not the North Korea Deal
George Perkovich reviews a number of differences and similarities between the current proposed deal with Iran and the 1994 Framework Agreement with North Korea.
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 Agreed Framework with the DPRK was an executive agreement, not a treaty. As such, and like thousands of other such agreements made by U.S. administrations since 1939, it was not presented to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Yet, congressional support was necessary for the United States to implement many of the framework’s terms, including the appropriation of funds for heavy oil to meet DPRK energy needs.
The prospective nuclear agreement with Iran also will not take the form of a treaty. But it will entail commitments by the United States to suspend sanctions on Iran, which the U.S. Congress can impede. For example, Congress could enact new legislation that would remove the executive’s authority to waive existing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Or, Congress could pass new legislation to sanction Iran for some other misdeed—a step that Iranians and others would see as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of a strictly nuclear deal.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab states express wariness of a possible nuclear deal with Iran for several reasons. Most obviously, they note that Iran will be left with significant capabilities to enrich uranium—capabilities that could be mobilized to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the proposed agreement and the NPT. These states also worry that a nuclear agreement would ease the way for normalization of relations between the United States and Iran. In that event, they worry that the preference the United States has given to their interests over Iran’s since 1979 could be reversed.
Given Iran’s overall economic and strategic advantages relative to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, these countries see U.S.-Iranian rapprochement as a threat. They will press the United States to exert itself against Iran in other domains of policy, particularly counterterrorism and the Sunni-Shia contests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. They will work with the United States and France, especially, to deploy intelligence and military capabilities to counter Iran.
Iran, while different from the DPRK in many positive ways, also continues to act contrary at least to Western norms, threatening the interests of its own people and its neighbors as well as the broader international community. (Of course, some of Iran’s neighbors that are regarded as U.S. friends similarly resist implementing norms of human rights, political representation, and noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.)
Iran’s actions are particularly threatening to U.S. interests. These actions include: support for Hezbollah’s military and terrorist wings, Islamic jihad, and Hamas; repugnant and threatening rhetoric against Israel and calls for a referendum among all Palestinians on the future of the Palestinian state, which would in effect mean the demise of Israel as a Jewish state; persecution of Iranian journalists and political opponents; development and testing of ballistic missiles; support for Shia communities in Sunni-ruled states, in ways that heighten fears of instability; and material support for the repression of Syrians by the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran’s young, urban population is modern and relatively well educated, often with direct or indirect knowledge of the Western world, unlike the population of the DPRK. This constituency voted for Rouhani and, earlier, for the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. These Iranians also supported the Green Movement protests that broke out after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential election. They welcome the prospects of a nuclear deal that would relieve sanctions and lessen their country’s international isolation. This is a significant constituency that would be mobilized if the government acted in ways that caused any sanctions that had been lifted to be reimposed, for example by cheating on a nuclear deal.
By almost all measures of national power, Iran is significantly ahead of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Arab states. It is these states, and the Sunni-Shia tensions that accompany Iran’s relations with them, that provide the greatest enduring challenge to Iran’s security.
Nuclear weapons may be the only means by which Saudi Arabia could equalize Iran’s overall power. Iranian leaders, particularly President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, recognize this. In private conversations, when they list reasons why it is not in Iran’s interest to transform its nuclear potential into actual nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders cite the risk of stimulating nuclear proliferation by their neighbors as number one.
Basic technical capabilities to detect violations of commitments like those Iran would make under a comprehensive nuclear deal have improved significantly since 1994. This augments the deterrence of cheating, including by heightening the probability that such cheating could be detected in time to allow military interdiction.
Moreover, the proposed agreement to monitor the entire supply of specified materials and technology going to Iran and to limit Iran’s procurement to a declared channel eases the burden of verification and intelligence gathering and assessment. Any procurement that was detected outside the monitored supply chain and declared channel would presumably be deemed a violation of the agreement. Unlike today, intelligence analysts and policymakers would not have to debate whether a detected activity actually signifies a violation of the NPT or of any other international nonproliferation norm or guideline.