Lessons from Tehran

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Lessons from Tehran

Iran has been publicly identified as an “active state sponsor of terrorism” since 1984. It bears the “killer” scarlet letter along with Cuba, Sudan and Syria even today. Former U.S. President George W. Bush labelled Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil.” Since fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared America as the “Great Satan” after seizing power in 1979, Iran became one of America’s biggest nightmares.

U.S. President Barack Obama devoted a large part of the first year of his second term to a diplomatic breakthrough in the nuclear standoff with Iran. The Associated Press reported that senior officials of the State Department and White House secretly met with Iranian policy makers in various places throughout the year. Their endeavors resulted in the landmark deal in Geneva on Nov. 24 to delay and possibly put a stop to Tehran’s nuclear weapons program for the first time in nearly a decade. The four-page Joint Plan of Action signed by foreign ministers of seven nations - Iran, Germany and the five UN Security Council members: the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia - could be the biggest diplomatic feat of Obama since he came into office in 2009.

The Nov. 24 agreement is just the first step toward a possibly lengthy and tedious process of denuclearizing Iran. Under the agreement, Iran will not enrich uranium over 20 percent - a threshold allowing research for nuclear weapons - and keep its existing highly-enriched uranium stockpile disabled by neutralizing or diluting the reserves. Enrichment activities would be contained at the level of 3.5 percent. It can’t even increase the stockpile, which means a freeze of any expansion in Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. The construction of plants to reprocess plutonium also will be stopped. Iran will comply with stringent surveillance and inspection by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In return, the U.S. and European powers offered to lift some of the economic sanctions on petrochemical products, gold and precious metals that could translate into $7 billion in economic revenue for the cash-strapped Middle East country. The easing is small when stacked against $100 billion in losses from international sanctions against Iran’s financial and foreign exchange transactions. But the ban on Iranian crude oil remains intact. The oil producer loses $50 billion a year in oil revenues because it can’t sell abroad. If the West is assured of Iran’s faithful observance of the agreement in the first six months, it would prepare a comprehensive final settlement package.

Yet it remains questionable whether the preliminary agreement will lead to a verifiable winding down of Iran’s nuclear weapons program given the critical lack of mutual trust.

The deal leaves much to be desired for hard-liners in Washington and Israel who sought complete disarmament. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the terms a “bad deal” that does not require Iran “to take apart even one centrifuge.” By allowing Tehran to continue low-grade enrichment for peaceful purposes, the deal leaves room for the country to resume a nuclear weapons program whenever its supreme leader changes his mind. But the military option - to strike the nuclear sites in Iran as demanded by hawkish groups in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Congress - should be deemed out of the question. The ramifications could be too huge. The U.S. can’t afford to go into another war after costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. It won’t get support from the American public either. That’s why Obama chose the alternative, despite the risk of fallout, with no better options left on the table.

Eyes are now on North Korea. Some may be hopeful that Washington’s next bargaining target would be Pyongyang. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pointed out in an interview with CNN, however, Iran isn’t North Korea. To Washington, North Korea is not a regional power like Iran, a leader of Shia Muslims. Nor is it a large oil producer.

It’s a poor, rogue state that bullies neighbors with nuclear threats. North Korea is producing nuclear bombs while Iran has just begun developing them. In cost effectiveness, it’s unclear whether Washington can get anything like the results with Iran

Instead, it chose to contain the rogue state with strategic patience, hoping it will one day grow up and change.

But North Korea’s nuclear problems won’t get any better. The world will inevitably have to recognize it as a state with nuclear arms. It is understandable why U.S. officials abhor negotiating with North Koreans considering their outrageous track record of breaking promises and misdeeds over the last decade. Washington wants stronger commitments to restart six-party negotiations as Pyongyang cried wolf too many times in the past.

Yet, the door to dialogue must remain open because military force can never be an option. If North Korea makes efforts to meet U.S. demands, it too must be given another chance. Without discreet behind-the-scenes meetings and negotiations between U.S. and Iranian officials, the Geneva interim deal could never have happened.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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