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Dealing with the Enemy

In response to:

Nuclear Diplomacy: From Iran to North Korea? from the August 17, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Jessica T. Mathews’s fine essay on North Korea and Iran, “Nuclear Diplomacy: From Iran to North Korea?” [NYR, August 17], contains several excellent points, particularly the special salience of two common words for the leadership of both countries: respect and dignity. The details on the “around-the-clock supervision” of Iran’s nuclear facilities by IAEA inspectors are notably useful at a time when President Trump is casting about for reasons to torpedo the Iran nuclear agreement. “A ‘failure’ like this,” she then writes, “would be an unimaginable success in North Korea.”

Yet in 1994 that same IAEA inspection regime began for North Korea, placing all of its plutonium and related facilities under strict controls. Six years into the process, the Clinton administration also worked out a deal to mothball the North’s medium- and long-range missiles.

The incoming Bush administration abandoned the missile deal, gratuitously put the North into its “axis of evil,” and in September 2002 announced its preemptive attack strategy, otherwise known as “the Bush Doctrine.” It was made immediately clear that the target list included not only Iraq but also North Korea, and administration officials went on to force the breakdown of the 1994 freeze. The subsequent invasion of Iraq is now recognized as a catastrophe, but experts are curiously quiet about a second catastrophe, looming almost as large: Bush’s insensate blunders that have yielded a North Korea armed with ICBMs and multiple numbers of nuclear weapons.

Bruce Cumings
The University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

To the Editors:

Jessica Mathews’s thoughtful review of my book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy provides excellent insights into the complexities of dealing with Iran and North Korea.

Our one area of disagreement is the role of sanctions. The issue is not whether sanctions were effective in hurting Iran’s economy—which they clearly were—or whether they provided America with leverage—which they clearly did.

Rather, the question that rarely gets asked is what the alternative costs to sanctions are. In the case of Iran, the facts speak for themselves: while the US pursued sanctions, Iran aggressively expanded its nuclear program. When President Barack Obama took office, Iran operated roughly 8,000 centrifuges. By the time the breakthrough in the secret talks in Oman occurred, Iran had roughly 22,000 centrifuges. It had eightfolded its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and significantly advanced its nuclear know-how. All of this provided Iran with counterleverage.

In the end, Iran outpaced the US in building leverage. By early 2013, Obama realized that sanctions were more likely to lead to war or acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear fait accompli than the collapse of Iran’s economy. Iran’s breakout time had already shrunk from twelve months to eight weeks in just one year.

Consequently, Obama decided in March 2013 to break with past policy and play the enrichment card in order to change a dynamic in which time wasn’t on Washington’s side.

What ultimately elicited Iranian flexibility was not sanctions, but rather Obama’s openness to accepting Iranian enrichment. Had Washington adopted a realistic position on enrichment earlier, it could have stopped Iran’s nuclear advances much earlier—without sanctions. Indeed, in 2005, Tehran offered to stop at 3,000 centrifuges. But the US insisted on zero centrifuges. Today, under the nuclear deal, Tehran operates 5,060 centrifuges.

Mathews’s argument that Washington couldn’t have accepted enrichment earlier because it didn’t know Iran’s intentions is unconvincing, because Iran’s intentions remain unknown. Neither intentions nor trust was key. A thorough inspections regime making it near impossible for Tehran to cheat—regardless of its intentions—was. Indeed, the US offered to accept enrichment in the second meeting of the secret talks long before it could have convincingly assessed Iran’s intentions.

This is an important debate because if we don’t understand what made the talks succeed, we cannot replicate the success elsewhere—such as with North Korea.

Trita Parsi
National Iranian American Council
Washington, D.C.

Jessica T. Mathews replies:

It’s impossible to square the statement Mr. Parsi makes here that “sanctions…clearly were” effective with the statement I quoted from his book that the sanctions on Iran “ultimately proved only that sanctions do not work.” Had he simply noted that sanctions have limitations Washington too often ignores, he would have been on solid ground. The US turns to sanctions too often, exaggerates their impact (particularly unilateral sanctions, which are close to toothless), and far too often misuses them by failing to lift them when the sanctioned behavior has ceased. It took an incredible thirty-eight years after Russia allowed emigration, for example, for Congress to lift the Jackson–Vanik sanctions imposed on the Soviet Union for not allowing Jews to emigrate. Moscow’s intense anger over this was justified. Correctly used, though, sanctions can be a strong demonstration of international resolve and—as they were regarding Iran’s nuclear program—effective leverage by inflicting economic pain, international isolation, and indignity.

As regards enrichment, I didn’t claim that the US “couldn’t have accepted enrichment earlier.” I wrote that for many years the contradiction between Tehran’s words (that it didn’t want nuclear weapons) and its actions (acquiring many more centrifuges than it needed for civilian purposes and building a secret enrichment plant buried deep underground where it would be safe from attack) made it very difficult to see continuing enrichment in Iran as anything other than continuing progress toward nuclear weapons. Mr. Parsi and I agree that it was Obama’s willingness to explore a deal that would allow a highly constrained, small enrichment program that made an agreement possible.

I also agree with Professor Cumings that the Bush administration’s policies of preemptive attack, its shift of focus from weapons of mass destruction to the particular regimes that possess them (the “axis of evil”), and its embrace of forced regime change were all catastrophically unwise. But his history of what happened with regard to North Korea in 2002 is quite unfair to that administration to say the least, for it omits the discovery in late 2001 that Pyongyang was blatantly cheating on the agreement the two countries had reached in 1994. North Korea stopped its plutonium work as required, but had built a secret enrichment plant—a different route to the same banned end.

In retrospect, having caught the North Koreans cheating, the administration’s better response might have been to rewrite and strengthen the violated agreement rather than breaking it off. But only hindsight provides such clarity, and by 2002 the Bush team was wholly focused on Iraq and, ironically, Saddam Hussein’s by-then-halted nuclear program.