Diplomatic Déjà vu?: Nuclear Deal-Making with Iran
About This Event

Earlier this month, the U.S. government offered to join Britain, France, and Germany in meeting with Iranian representatives if Iran suspended uranium enrichment and reprocessing work. Included in the proposal were a series of incentives, including an offer to help build a light-water nuclear reactor, which is seen as less Listen to Audio


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of a threat than the country's uranium enrichment program. While many diplomats hailed the offer and possibility of U.S.-Iranian talks as a breakthrough, the deal is strikingly similar to the 1994 U.S.–North Korea Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang promised to suspend its enrichment program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors and additional aid. North Korea soon abrogated its promises and has since announced that it has nuclear weapons.

What are the implications of this recent proposal? Why did the North Korean deal fail? Will an agreement with Iran be more successful? Is Tehran's strategy different from Pyongyang's? These and other questions will be the subject of an AEI panel discussion with Michael Connell, an Iran specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses; Danielle Pletka, AEI vice president for foreign and defense policy studies; and AEI scholars Nicholas Eberstadt, Michael Rubin, and Gary Schmitt. AEI resident scholar Frederick W. Kagan will moderate.

Agenda

9:15 a.m.
Registration and Breakfast
9:30
Panelists:
Michael Connell, Center for Naval Analyses
Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI
Danielle Pletka, AEI
Michael Rubin, AEI
Gary Schmitt, AEI
Moderator:
Frederick W. Kagan, AEI
11:00
Adjournment

Event Summary

June 2006

Diplomatic Déjà vu?: Nuclear Deal-Making with Iran

Earlier this month, the U.S. government offered to join Britain, France, and Germany in meeting with Iranian representatives if Iran suspended uranium enrichment and reprocessing work. Included in the proposal were a series of incentives, including an offer to help build a light-water nuclear reactor, which is seen as less of a threat than the country's uranium enrichment program. While many diplomats hailed the offer and possibility of U.S.-Iranian talks as a breakthrough, the deal is strikingly similar to the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang promised to suspend its enrichment program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors and additional aid. North Korea soon abrogated its promises and has since announced that it has nuclear weapons. What are the implications of this recent proposal? Why did the North Korean deal fail? Will an agreement with Iran be more successful? Is Tehran's strategy different from Pyongyang's? These and other questions were the subject of a June 30 AEI panel discussion.

Nicholas Eberstadt
AEI

North Korea is the world’s leading model in nuclear proliferation and has succeeded in freeing itself from all treaties and agreements that restrain its nuclear development programs. North Korea has succeeded in the development of a nuclear arsenal. Given this success, there are four lessons that a would-be proliferator--namely, Iran--can learn from the North Korean experience.

First, if the would-be proliferator is to sign an international agreement with nonproliferators about dismantling its nuclear program, it should ensure that it is actually a non-agreement. In 1994, North Korea signed the Agreed Framework document with the United States, which was referred to as an agreement but was more of a “vision” on how to denuclearize North Korea. It is a document with no enforcement mechanism and thus could not be violated.

Second, a would-be proliferator should ensure that there will be no penalties for proliferation violations.

Third, a would-be proliferator should take the position that any negotiation over one’s nuclear program is a gift to nonproliferating interlocutors and should be compensated accordingly--much like North Korea has been paid to show up at the six-party talks.

Finally, a would-be proliferator needs to get lucky with the lead partner of the nonproliferation coalition. North Korea has been quite fortunate in dealing with U.S. negotiators. The Clinton administration adopted a policy of “appeasement” that encouraged generous offers to North Korea with the hope of encouraging good behavior. Even though the Bush administration adopted a more aggressive attitude toward North Korea, it had no coherent approach and no strategy to deliver results.

In conclusion, leaders in Tehran have plenty to learn from the North Korean experience.

Danielle Pletka
AEI

Current developments in Iran can be paralleled to the last thirteen years of nonproliferation efforts in North Korea. By following a timeline of the North Korean nuclear dispute, one can see that history is replicating itself. Through successive administrations, the United States has been saying the same thing to the North Koreans and the Iranians.

The Iranians, like the North Koreans, are seeking to buy time. They are looking for ways to continue the dialogue and negotiation process in order to continue perfecting their nuclear program. They are buying time to reach a point of no return where the United States would be afraid to respond in a way that they are prepared to today. Thus, the United States will have to recalculate its interests in the region.

The similarity of the United Nations Security Council measures in both the North Korean and Iran cases is also interesting to underline. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) referred North Korea’s non-compliance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council, China impeded all progress--similar to Russia’s current posture vis-à-vis Iran. The United States was never successful at moving forward with the nonproliferation case within the United Nations Security Council.

The history of this diplomacy is very instructive and by looking at where the United States ended up with North Korea, one can expect the same outcome with Iran.

The six-party talks were supposed to result in pressure on North Korea by the United States, its Asian allies, and other concerned countries. But the dynamics of the six-party talks did not reflect this. Instead, other countries pressured the United States to make more generous concessions, which should be avoided in the Iranian case.

This multilateral diplomacy has led to a shift of focus. It is not the Iranians who are under the microscope; rather, it is the United States that is pressured to sweeten its offer.

Multilateral diplomacy in the absence of momentum and progress is the hallmark of a weak state, especially when it is pursued only for the sake of diplomatic conventions. Right now, the United States is acting like such a state.

Michael Connell
Center for Naval Analyses

Iran’s government is not a totalitarian regime in a strict sense; it represents a decentralized web of competing factions and interests in which decision-making is often dispersed among several actors.

For instance, the supreme leader presides over foreign policy and the national security apparatus but lacks formal religious credentials. The president’s role is generally confined to socioeconomic and cultural concerns. The National Security Council determines national security and defense policies, as well as nuclear decision-making, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) safeguards the revolution and is one of the key players in the nuclear program.

The Iranian regime is based on relatively weak centers of power and overlapping command structures with an emphasis on personal networks and influence over formal institutions. Thus, security related issues barely move forward without the consensus of the political elite. This means that there will be great reluctance on the part of leadership to press issues unless all the factions agree. In the case of negotiating with the United States and ceasing nuclear activity, most Iranian factions are unlikely to reach such a consensus.

The regime’s rationale for obtaining nuclear weapons is based on four key factors. First, the ousting of the Saddam Hussein and the Taliban regimes removed two of Iran’s key security concerns. The remaining principal threat is the United States, and Iran’s only options in countering the United States are asymmetric warfare--in the form of terrorism, guerilla warfare, and nuclear weapons. Israel, on the other hand, is not considered as direct a threat to Iran’s survival, but anti-Israeli rhetoric is used to garner support for its nuclear program in the Arab world. The prospect of a Taliban-like government replacing Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan also serves as a motivating factor in Iran’s nuclear development.

The second key drive would be power prestige and influence as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad harnesses the power of nationalism and garners support for Iran’s right to nuclear power.

Third, Iranians witnessed the world’s ineffectiveness in confronting Iraq’s use of nuclear weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

Finally, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls the Iranian nuclear program and will be loath to give up these privileges.

Michael Rubin
AEI

There are times when diplomacy should be adopted, and it is appropriate to talk not just to friends, but to adversaries as well. However, the United States has traditionally lacked sense over the timing of such diplomacy.

The United States has been blind to this issue of timing. For example, the U.S.-India nuclear deal was announced at a time when the United States was trying to introduce a hard-line stance upon its European allies. Some believe that there is no distinction between India and Iran when it comes to nuclear proliferation issues. They ask, if India is to be exempted from nuclear inspections, why not Iran? Thus, the timing of the announcement was not beneficial to U.S. national security.

The other problem with the United States is that it tends to negotiate from a position of weakness, and in many ways Iran is holding the United States hostage. Instead of ameliorating tensions in Iraq during this period of negotiation, Iran is using its momentum to consolidate control in Iraq.

When it comes to U.S.-Iranian relations, the big picture comes down to red lines. Red lines are the basis of any diplomacy. The Iranians do not interpret the Bush administration’s red-lines seriously. They were given six last chances. The last time talks were translated into action was in 1992, with respect to Iran’s interference in Bosnia. Given Germany’s encouragement of Iran toward further diplomatic engagement, Iran learned that it can get away with murder.

One of the problems that the United States seems to be facing in its negotiations is that it tends to ignore evidence that undermines the negotiation process. Once the State Department commits to negotiations, policy analysis is conducted to preserve their utility.

In conclusion, one of the most dangerous ideologies in Washington today is that “talk always works,” regardless of the sincerity of the negotiating partner and regardless of any evidence of failure. Unfortunately, it seems to be a mistake the United States keeps repeating.

Gary Schmitt
AEI

When examining the differences between North Korea and Iran, one of the striking things is that North Korea is not a country over which a lot of leverage can be exercised. Its economic system allows people to starve. Its totalitarian regime limits maneuverability inside the country. Finally, its military situation is risky as the country has nuclear weapons and a military presence superior to Seoul.

None of these points apply to Iran. Iran’s economic system is very vulnerable. From a regime change point of view, Iran is not a totalitarian system, and there is considerable discontent in the population. America is popular within Iranian society. On the military front, there is no evidence that Iran has attained nuclear weapons yet.

Iran is a unique situation. If one sets up a parallel with North Korea, one can see that the administration is growing weaker with time and less steady, because of the implications of its action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, when administrations get older, they tend to get tired. 

The heart of negotiations comes down to the “grand bargain” where Iran will give up its weapons of mass destruction in exchange for security guarantees. But a “grand bargain” is impossible to achieve for two reasons.

First, from the U.S. perspective, offering security guarantees would mean the drawing down of troops from the Persian Gulf, accepting Iranian hegemony in the region, and leaving Israel much more vulnerable. This is unlikely to happen.

Second, Iranian insecurities are directly related to the policies it pursues regarding its religious and political ambitions in the region.

Given the economic and geographic isolation of North Korea, the best strategic alternative would be to adopt a policy of containment. This model does not apply to Iran since it is not economically and geographically isolated. A policy of containment toward Iran will not be a solution for peace.

AEI intern Georges Sassine prepared this summary.

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