What Iran deal means for NorthDuring his visit to China last week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the recently negotiated nuclear deal with Iran could send an important signal to North Korea. To review, the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the EU) reached an interim agreement with Tehran that is supposed to freeze Iran’s stockpile of uranium, grant U.S. inspections to three nuclear-related facilities in Iran, and lead to the shutdown of Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak.
In exchange, the P5+1 will provide about $7 billion in sanctions relief and impose no new sanctions for six months. The agreement is a temporary cease-fire on new sanctions and new nuclear construction, and does nothing to address Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorist groups that are destabilizing the region. Nevertheless, the interim negotiation is the most significant development in nuclear diplomacy with Iran to date. So could it be a model for North Korea?
The short answer is probably not. First, the diplomacy of the Iran agreement was structured in a fundamentally different way than our recent history of negotiations with North Korea. The P5+1 developed a joint position on negotiations before meeting with the Iranians and stayed unified throughout the process. That was the original concept for the six-party talks with North Korea as well.
As a senior NSC official, I helped to draft the plan for the six-party process in late 2002 that would have had the five parties (United States, ROK, Japan, China and Russia) develop unified negotiating positions to pressure North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. Beijing refused to take that approach, however, which allowed North Korea to separate the other parties and delay the talks. Without greater solidarity among the five parties (and especially China) the six-party talks do not have enough leverage to compel Pyongyang to negotiate sincerely.
Second, the Iran nuclear deal was made possible by steadily increasing sanctions. These sanctions hurt Iran, which is much more dependent on international trade than North Korea, and gave the P5+1 negotiators considerable leverage. Those sanctions were put in place by a coalition of states, including the United States, EU, Korea, Japan and others. In contrast, the new sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are based on UN Security Council resolutions, which have strong diplomatic legitimacy, but are almost always watered down in order to maintain a consensus among the P5 countries.
If the United States, ROK, Japan and other countries did what we did with Iran and instituted new coordinated sanctions on North Korea - for example, inspecting all ships that had visited North Korea in the previous six months - then the pressure from sanctions would begin to approach what was achieved with Iran. The possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran added further pressure (though that option is hard to imagine in the North Korean case). One key lesson from the Iran case, in short, is that diplomacy requires increasing sanctions and the prospect of even further sanctions should the recalcitrant party continue developing nuclear capabilities.
Third, the interim Iran agreement is the first of its kind with Tehran. In the case of North Korea, however, there have already been at least five failed interim agreements: the 1992 North-South denuclearization accord, the 1995 Agreed Framework, the September 2005 joint statement, the October 2008 agreement, and the February 2012 Leap Day deal between the United States and North Korea. In every case, North Korea continued developing its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. There is no basis for thinking that an agreement like that reached with Tehran can work with North Korea without visible steps that Pyongyang has changed its mind about nuclear weapons.
Fourth, Iran is a significantly more transparent country than North Korea. The Iran deal is controversial in the Congress and with U.S. allies in the Middle East, but the Obama administration can at least make a credible claim that it knows where most of Iran’s nuclear facilities are. That simply cannot be said about North Korea’s extensive network of concealed uranium and plutonium programs, not to mention weaponization and related missile facilities.
An agreement with North Korea similar to that reached with Iran is unlikely, but the Iran deal does point to what the United States, ROK and other parties have to do if they want a better prospect of success with North Korea. And the answer is not just dialogue, but more sanctions and solidarity among the five parties.
The worrisome thing to me is what lessons Tehran is taking from the history of our own negotiations with North Korea - namely, that once the democracies reach an interim agreement and relax sanctions pressure, it is very hard for them to reapply that pressure later absent a major provocation. One should fully expect that Iran will delay implementation and try to reopen economic exchanges with members of the international community, while the Obama administration will attempt to convince the Congress, Israel and Gulf allies that the deal can still work - even as the six-month deadline continues slipping further to the right. North Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop told me almost a decade ago that Pyongyang used exactly that strategy with the Agreed Framework: delaying and avoiding inspections until it was ready to “confront the United States with a new nuclear deterrent.”
Will Iran later confront us with a nuclear test? Perhaps not. For Iran, the ability to leap to nuclear weapons capability in less than a year may be sufficient for a while. Unlike North Korea, which is boxed in by powerful China, South Korea, Japan and Russia - Iran is surrounded by small states that were once under Persian hegemony and have internal vulnerabilities to Shiite revolution. Iran can continue extending its regional hegemony through proxy terrorist groups while using a nearly complete nuclear capability to deter counterpunches by the United States, Israel or the Gulf states.
North Korea, in contrast, has no such hegemonic past or future. For Pyongyang, nuclear weapons are all about regime survival, which means casting legitimacy on the internationally discredited Kim family, defying the major powers that surround the North and using nuclear blackmail to gain concessions that help keep the regime in power. That is a problem, though, because it means Pyongyang is more desperate to have a demonstrated nuclear weapons capability and will be more unpredictable in how it uses it.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
By Michael Green