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Nuclear Diplomacy: From Iran to North Korea?

Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
President Trump with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Trump gave a speech that was, Jessica Mathews writes, ‘a full-throated embrace of the Saudi view of Iran as the region’s chief malefactor,’ May 21, 2017

Over five days in May, Donald Trump’s Iran policy—of monumental importance to the future of the Middle East and to US security—began to come into focus. On May 17, the president quietly agreed to continue to waive sanctions against Iran, a step that was required to keep the Iran nuclear deal in force. Two days later Iran held presidential elections with a landslide result in favor of the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani; and two days after that the United States’ new Middle East policy, built around a Saudi-US-Israel axis, was unveiled in the president’s speech in Riyadh.

It had long seemed clear that Trump was not going to “rip up” what he had called in the campaign “the dumbest deal…in the history of deal-making.” The State Department had confirmed repeated findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was meeting its nuclear commitments. But the May 17 waiver was the first time that an affirmative action on the deal had to be taken in the president’s name.

Iran’s election pitted President Rouhani, the architect of the deal and a proponent of reengaging Iran with the world, against a conservative, nationalist cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran with the backing of the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line forces. Had Raisi won, the deal’s future in Iran would have been very much in doubt. Instead, Rouhani had a resounding victory with high voter turnout. Though few Iranians have yet to feel any economic benefit from the deal and the end to international isolation it promises, there is little doubt that, for now, they overwhelmingly favor sticking with it.

In Saudi Arabia, where he was making the first stop of his first trip abroad as president, Trump ignored that positive outcome. His speech was a full-throated embrace of the Saudi view of Iran as the region’s chief malefactor and cause of its troubles. Trump’s reference to Tehran as the Middle East power that has “for decades…fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” is a more accurate description of the Saudi kingdom, with its long record of exporting an unforgiving brand of Wahhabi Islam to madrasas and mosques around the world. His assurance of unquestioning friendship with Riyadh is new in American policy. Washington will ignore the failure of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states to enact needed political and economic reforms, and their repression of Shia minorities, in exchange for their help against ISIS and promotion of Israeli–Palestinian peace. All nations, Trump declaimed, “must work together to isolate Iran.”

The new US policy has layers of contradictions. By not rejecting the nuclear deal the administration tacitly acknowledges that it’s working, yet senior officials continue to harshly criticize it. This extreme distaste for an agreement that has removed—at least for a decade—a nuclear threat that a few years ago raised the specter of another war in the Middle East is even odder when set against the standoff with North Korea. If anything were needed to underline how much safer the Iran deal has made the United States, the menace of North Korea’s nuclear development surely qualifies.

The new policy’s anti-Iran stance reflects the real reason that Israel and the Gulf states oppose the deal: they fear an Iran released from the international penalty box to which it was relegated for the nearly twenty years that Tehran pursued—and lied about—its weapons program. Many in the region remember that it was not very long ago that Iran and the US were close allies. They are far more comfortable with Iran’s being indefinitely excluded from the region’s commerce and diplomacy. Hence the particular words “isolate Iran.” Now that a weapons program is no longer the primary concern, the rationale for isolation has shifted to Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Yet such geopolitical differences, no matter how profound, are never resolved by avoiding dialogue; rather, they deepen.

Setting aside the unwisdom of taking sides in the region’s Sunni–Shia divide, the low probability that a partnership linking Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US will help achieve an Israeli–Palestinian peace, and the dubious assumption that conservative Sunni states will make the defeat of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni terrorist groups a top priority, the new policy raises important questions about the nuclear deal itself. What has happened in the two years since it was agreed to? To what degree is it contributing to US national security? Can it be sustained in the face of unrelenting enmity from the US?

Since the deal was concluded in 2015, Iran has gotten rid of all of its highly enriched uranium. It has also eliminated 98 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, leaving only three hundred kilograms, less than the amount needed to fuel one weapon if taken to high enrichment. The number of centrifuges maintained for uranium enrichment is down from 19,000 to 6,000. The rest have been dismantled and put into storage under tight international monitoring. Continuing enrichment is limited to 3.67 percent, the accepted level for reactor fuel. All enrichment has been shut down at the once-secret, fortified, underground facility at Fordow, south of Tehran. Iran has disabled and poured concrete into the core of its plutonium reactor—thus shutting down the plutonium as well as the uranium route to nuclear weapons. It has provided adequate answers to the IAEA’s long-standing list of questions regarding past weapons-related activities.

Iran has accepted around-the-clock supervision by IAEA inspectors, cameras, and monitoring equipment at its nuclear facilities. There have been no problems with access. These inspections include some places, like uranium mines and centrifuge rotor production facilities, that have never previously been subjected to international oversight in other countries. Their inclusion makes it much harder to operate a covert program. Iran has adhered to allowed limits on R&D, and an innovative mechanism to track sensitive imports has been created.

Two years ago critics in the United States were deeply skeptical that these steps would be carried out. Today they are facts. Most of the commitments extend for ten or fifteen—and in a few cases twenty-five—years. Iran remains a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (North Korea withdrew in 2003), and several of the deal’s enforcement provisions strengthen the treaty by serving as models for application elsewhere.

In this light, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent description of the agreement as “the same failed approach…that brought us to the current imminent threat that we face from North Korea” is simply bizarre, betraying either ignorance of the facts or a willingness to wholly distort them. A “failure” like this would be an unimaginable success in North Korea.

It is dangerously easy now to forget, as Tillerson seems to have done, the trajectory of US–Iranian relations a few years ago. In September 2010, a well-sourced article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic asserted that Israel was on the verge of bombing Iran. A technical “point of no return” in Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon would be reached within a few months, Goldberg wrote, and Israel would not allow that to happen. Washington knew this would be a war that Israel could start but not finish. The US would be dragged into the conflict to aid Israel—strategically and politically a terrible outcome. Over the following two years there was more and more discussion in Washington of the US taking the military initiative.

At that time the prospect of serious negotiations between two countries steeped in mutual distrust seemed beyond reach. Iran and the US had not spoken for more than thirty years and the venomous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still Iran’s president. Only two options looked likely: that Iran would continue to build centrifuges until it could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear arsenal; or war—against a country more than three times the size of Iraq.

The story of how dogged diplomacy and some good luck took us from that low point to a deal that few could have imagined is one worth telling. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, who had the advantage of access to high-level participants on both sides, tells it well in his new book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Crucial events and decisions are traced in great detail, supported by an unusual wealth of on-the-record interviews. The book generally gives the Iranian view of the more controversial issues, especially regarding the part played by sanctions. But the insight thereby provided is useful if the bias is understood.

Opponents of the deal raise three issues: that its provisions aren’t tough enough; that Iran will inevitably cheat; and that the deal should have covered nonnuclear issues. The last of these is the thinnest. No deal spanning all of the issues that divide the US and Iran, much less all seven parties to the talks (those two plus Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany) could possibly have been agreed to; this argument amounts to rejecting negotiation entirely. And who could possibly prefer no agreement at all to one that has dealt with only the single most dangerous issue? As regards cheating, Iran has certainly done so before. While not watertight, the deal’s technical provisions are strong enough that any attempt to evade them would almost certainly be quickly detected. The technical measures are reinforced by political protections, notably the right of any single permanent member of the UN Security Council to demand that sanctions be “snapped back” if a disagreement arises over compliance.

But is the deal tough enough? Critics insist that it should have banned enrichment entirely. I felt this way in 2005. But a negotiated agreement is a reflection of what can be achieved at a given moment. In 2003 the US rejected a deal that would have capped Iranian centrifuges at an unthreatening three thousand. The decade that elapsed between then and 2013, when Iran was on the verge of nuclear breakout, did not work in the West’s favor. Technology consistently outpaced faltering diplomacy. As one official involved in the negotiations later noted, “We were constantly chasing the deal we could have gotten two years earlier.”

Yet there was a good reason why the US refused for so long to consider a deal that allowed enrichment. The difficulty lay in figuring out Iran’s real intentions. If Iran did not want nuclear weapons, as Iranian leaders insisted, why was it building centrifuge capacity so far in excess of its conceivable civilian needs? And indeed, why enrich at all when reactor fuel can be bought on the commercial market far more cheaply?

Parsi’s answer is domestic politics. Because of what he dubs the Supreme Leader’s “incentive structure”—by which he presumably means the policies Ayatollah Ali Khamenei favored and hence rewarded politically—Tehran convinced itself that “the nuclear issue ultimately was a pretext the West used to pressure Iran, to deprive it of access to science, and to deny it the ability to live up to its full potential.” This would keep Iran from being able to challenge US domination of the region. The right to enrich uranium became a symbol of national pride, technological prowess, international standing—and fairness. How could the great Persian nation be denied the right to do something that eight other nonnuclear weapons states were doing? At the least, having given up so much else, drawing the line at enrichment was a way for Tehran to keep the deal from looking, and feeling, like a defeat.

This nonnefarious explanation is much easier to take seriously now that an agreement has been reached and adhered to. In truth, the US still does not know what Tehran’s nuclear intentions were and how they may have evolved. Iranians’ views on critical questions are no less divided than are Americans’. Some members of Tehran’s leadership may have wanted Iran to be a nuclear weapons state. Others may have wanted to get just to the brink without crossing over—the so-called Japan option. A definitive choice may never have been made. US intelligence concluded in 2007, and reaffirmed twice thereafter, that Iran had abandoned its weapons program some years earlier. Perhaps nuclear weapons were the goal until the price imposed by worldwide sanctions got too high.

As reluctant as President Trump and his team are to acknowledge it, the nuclear deal has removed a major danger, allowing him to focus on other Iranian policies, especially in Syria where US and Iranian interests are likely to clash as ISIS is progressively weakened there.* The range of threats to US national security—and indeed to global security—looks entirely different than it did in 2012, when there was a real prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that could in turn provoke nuclear proliferation across the unstable Middle East—in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey in particular. While the deal is not perfect, Iran has thrown away tens of billions of dollars and decades of work on weapons-related materials and facilities, has taken, in the most pessimistic outlook, a ten- to fifteen-year hiatus in pursuit of nuclear weapons, and remains a permanent member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Are there lessons from this success that might be applied to the growing nuclear threat in Asia?

STR/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un viewing the test of a medium-to-long-range ballistic missile in an undated photo released May 22, 2017

North Korea is years beyond the nuclear “breakout” the US so fears in Iran. Pyongyang’s first nuclear test was more than a decade ago. Four more have followed with yields up to twice the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The country is believed to have around twenty fission bombs and to be progressing along the path to a much larger hydrogen bomb. Moreover, the regime is consistently making faster progress on missile technology than US intelligence has expected, including the stunning July 4 test of what appears to be a bona fide intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). North Korea’s shorter-range missiles can now be fired from mobile launchers rather than fixed sites, and fueled with solid rather than liquid fuel. Both of these advances make preparation for a missile launch much quicker and harder to detect. The crucial remaining unknowns are how long it will take Pyongyang to perfect an ICBM capable of reaching the continental US and to miniaturize nuclear weapons so that they can be delivered atop a missile.

The differences with Iran are obvious, but there are also similarities that suggest how US policy toward North Korea should be shaped. In both cases there is a nearly bottomless well of distrust—in Pyongyang, even of its Chinese ally. Americans and Iranians so feared each other that they needed the help of a middleman, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, to get close enough even to begin negotiating. There is no person or country that can play that part for North Korea, but the absence of trust must somehow be reckoned with in US strategy.

Similarly, in both Iran and North Korea, though for different cultural and historical reasons, “respect” and “dignity” carry a weight that is very hard for Americans to appreciate, but which has to be understood. In a somber video message to clarify Tehran’s positions recorded in November 2013, Javad Zarif, foreign minister and chief negotiator, opens with the surprising words: “What is respect? What is dignity?” Summarizing their detailed study of the North Korean situation, Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Cohen, editors of a valuable new volume of scholarly essays, write: “For North Korea, the sensitive nerve of Kim Jong-un’s legitimization—the so-called dignity—is apparently one of the most vulnerable parts of the regime.”

Pyongyang and Tehran share a third unusual characteristic that must influence US policy. In both capitals regime survival has often been more important to those in power than the national interest. The recent fate of Muammar Qaddafi after he gave up his nuclear program and of Saddam Hussein makes this anxiety even more acute. Repeated US talk of regime change will be just as counterproductive in dealing with North Korea as it was with Iran.

Above all, in neither country is there an attractive military option. North Korea is capable of inflicting millions of casualties on South Korea with conventional heavy artillery before those guns could be silenced. Negotiation is therefore unavoidable. This means that a winner-take-all goal (comparable to the zero-enrichment position vis-à-vis Iran) is unachievable. Time spent pursuing one will be wasted.

Instead, as with Iran, what can be achieved has to be calibrated against present circumstances. In view of Pyongyang’s large nuclear arsenal and advanced missile delivery systems, the long-standing US insistence that North Korea agree to complete denuclearization as a precondition to talks is far out of date and must be dropped.

How much can sanctions help? As Iran demonstrated, they can raise the cost of undesired behavior, but they will not halt it so long as the country in question is willing to suffer the consequences—something North Korea is clearly willing to do. Moreover, over long periods of time, sanctions lose an edge. External pressure unites those subjected to it and economies adapt, creating black markets that perversely produce a class of people who profit from sanctions and want them prolonged.

Parsi goes so far as to assert that the sanctions regime imposed on Iran “ultimately proved only that sanctions do not work,” but this is the Iranian line and it is false. He admits elsewhere in the book that the sanctions created substantial leverage for Iran’s opponents through the economic pain and international isolation they inflicted. Sanctions are also essential to demonstrating international resolve. Yet North Korea’s extremely closed economy and iron-fisted autocracy make it the least susceptible of any country on earth to such pressure. Sanctions have to be maintained but, short of posing a mortal threat to North Korea’s regime, they are not a solution.

China could, but won’t, create that mortal threat—by withholding oil and food. Trump is not the first American president to hope that if only the US leans heavily enough on China, China will lean hard enough on North Korea to force it to back down. Beijing fears both the internal chaos and the flood of refugees that would follow a collapse of North Korea’s government. But the principal reason why it will not force regime change is a deeply held strategic fear of a united Korea allied to the US, which would put American forces on its own border. Pressure from Washington won’t alter China’s assessment of its national interest.

Ultimately, then, the only approach that might work is one that has not yet been tried: a joint effort by the US and China. As an eventual outcome, both sides’ interests would be met by a unified, denuclearized, neutral Korea. While this end state is not hard to define, the process of getting there would be tortuous and require a degree of mutual trust between Washington and Beijing that does not now exist. Small, confidence-building steps would be needed over a long period. North and South Korea would have to find an acceptable basis for reunification—overcoming mountains of difficulty in bringing together a dictatorship that is nothing without its weapons and a democracy whose economy is more than one hundred times larger. North–South agreements signed in 1991 and 2000 point to a confederation between the two states as the means of starting the process.

The effort would take years. In the meantime, the US and the world will have to depend on a determined defense and, more importantly, deterrence. Rhetorical bluster and military gestures—like firing off missiles in response to North Korean tests—only confirm the regime’s paranoia and undermine US credibility. Pyongyang will not be frightened into changing direction at this late date. Washington can and should tighten sanctions on Chinese banks and companies trading with North Korea, and continue to pressure Beijing into taking a tougher stance. But it would be a huge mistake to make this issue the sole test of the US–China relationship, as President Trump repeatedly suggests he will do. That would be to trade one strategic threat for two.

Meanwhile, the US must preserve the Iran deal—which cannot be taken for granted. The deal’s greatest weakness is not to be found in its provisions but in the hostility of those in Tehran, Washington, and Jerusalem who, for mostly political reasons, would like to see it die. In the US, through more than thirty years of frozen nonrelations, Iran became a two-dimensional cartoon of evil that too many members of Congress, especially, and leading officials in the present administration, including the president, still believe in. And though Israel’s top general called the deal a “strategic turning point,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition, which began long before a deal was actually negotiated, hasn’t ebbed.

Such caricatures don’t survive direct exposure. Parsi quotes a German diplomat who makes the point:

Germany has normal diplomatic relations, which makes a huge difference in our understanding of Iran. Just relying on intelligence, as the US is forced to do, can distort things. It becomes all about drama, doom and gloom, and never about the normal things. Till this day, the US still has an unnatural relationship with Iran.

He’s right, of course. Our continuing lack of diplomatic relations does not make it any easier to maintain the nuclear agreement in the face of profound geopolitical strains. The onus for this to change is on Tehran.

The administration and opponents of the deal in Congress—nearly all of them Republicans—need to update their rhetoric. Contrary to what they expected, the deal is being honored and continuing denunciations are not cost-free. They undermine the working relationship with the Iranian government needed to keep the deal in force—technical and financial issues crop up and must be managed—and they encourage dangerous mischief on Capitol Hill by members who want to score what seem to be cheap political points or even see the deal collapse. Provocations from Washington will be instantly responded to by Tehran—especially as the US escalates its military activity in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. And the criticisms raise expectations among Iran’s opponents in the Middle East that the US cannot meet without throwing away what has been achieved.

It may be too much to hope that the Trump administration will come to recognize that pariah status does not improve any nation’s behavior, and that the Iran deal is the starting point from which other issues the US has with Iran, beginning with the future of Syria, can be addressed. But we should at least be able to expect that the administration is capable of recognizing the boon to national security it has inherited and that it can exercise the discipline and focus necessary to maintain it.

—July 12, 2017

  1. *

    See Joost Hiltermann, “Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran,” NYR Daily, April 13, 2017.