War Stories

Déjà Nuke

Can we make a deal with Tehran like the one we made with Pyongyang?

There’s a certain déjà vu about the package of incentives that the United States, Russia, and the leading nations of Europe are about to offer Iran if it agrees to stop enriching uranium. The deal is nearly identical to the nuclear accord that the Clinton administration signed with North Korea a dozen years ago—an accord that, however flawed and limited, kept Pyongyang from building dozens of A-bombs over the course of that decade.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Europeans, working with the Bush administration, plan to offer Iran assistance in building a light-water nuclear reactor—a type of reactor best-suited for generating electricity—in exchange for Iran’s halting activity at plants that can more easily churn out nuclear bombs.

This would be coupled with a long-standing Russian offer to supply the Iranians with fuel for their nuclear reactors—a solution that would let Iran have nuclear power without having to enrich uranium themselves. (Of course, if the Iranians are lying and don’t want nuclear power strictly for energy—if they want it for A-bombs, too—this proposal is moot.)

Finally, as the Times story and several earlier reports have noted, there has been much talk of offering Iran some economic rewards and security guarantees in exchange for its nuclear abstinence.

President Bill Clinton’s accord with North Korea—formally titled “The Agreed Framework Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” signed in Geneva on Oct. 21, 1994—had almost exactly the same provisions.

Light-water reactors were central to Clinton’s deal. North Korea agreed to end all activities at its heavy graphite reactors and to allow full monitoring and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the United States agreed to provide two light-water reactors for electrical power. Washington would make its “best efforts” to secure a contract for the reactors within six months and to construct the reactors by 2003.

Meanwhile, the United States and North Korea were to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.” Within three months, both sides were to lower barriers to trade and investment. Not long after, they were to open liaison offices—and eventually embassies—in each other’s capitals.

The United States was also to give North Korea “formal assurances … against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.” At the same time, North Korea was to engage in dialogue with South Korea, “as this Agreed Framework will help create an atmosphere that promotes such dialogue.”

Finally, Russia’s proposal to recycle Iran’s nuclear fuel also has a precedent in the Agreed Framework—not in the accord itself but in the little-known “supply agreement,” signed in December 1995 between North Korea and the international consortium that the United States, South Korea, and Japan set up to finance the light-water reactors. Under this agreement, North Korea would, among other things, “transfer spent fuel” from its reactors “when the delivery of key nuclear components for the first light-water reactor begins.”

The Agreed Framework never got far off the ground. The reactors were never delivered. (South Korea, then governed by hard-liners, pulled out of the deal after a North Korean submarine ran aground on its shores. Many in the U.S. Congress also opposed funding the deal, which, since it was an “agreed framework,” not a treaty, didn’t require Senate ratification.) The accord’s subsequent steps were linked to progress on the reactors, so the deal unraveled. Still, the IAEA’s cameras and inspectors continued to monitor the fuel rods at North Korea’s heavy reactor. U.S. and North Korean negotiators were close to reaching a more comprehensive accord, including a ban on missile production, by the time Clinton’s term ran out. (For more on this saga, click here.)

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he publicly refused to hold any talks with the horrid tyrant Kim Jong-il. The CIA, meanwhile, discovered that the North Koreans had been secretly enriching uranium at a hidden site. Tensions flared. Bush denounced North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” Kim pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, kicked out the IAEA’s inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, reprocessed them into bomb-grade plutonium—and that’s where things have stood for the past three years. Bush has initiated some diplomatic moves in his second term, largely the doing of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as yet to no avail. The U.S. emissary on North Korean affairs returns to the region next week.

It’s ironic that President Bush is now endorsing a diplomatic stance toward Iran so similar to the stance that President Clinton took toward North Korea. When he first took office, Bush so feverishly opposed the Agreed Framework with North Korea in large part because Clinton had produced it.

Yet the convergence shouldn’t be so surprising. Bush has been maneuvered into a diplomatic path toward Iran because he has no real alternative. And if the diplomatic task is to lure a hostile regime from the nuclear precipice, there are only so many inducements to put on the table—alternative sources of nuclear energy, economic assistance, political recognition, security guarantees. The Agreed Framework—which took more than 50 nightmarishly difficult negotiating sessions for Clinton’s emissaries to conclude—contained all these inducements. If a deal is to be worked out with Iran, it will have to provide them in some fashion, too.

However, Iran is a tougher nut to crack than North Korea, for at least two reasons. First, Iran has real levers it can pull, chiefly as a major supplier of oil, which gives it political muscle and—given prices these days—considerable wealth. By contrast, North Korea’s leverage derives from its weakness; China especially doesn’t want to push Pyongyang too hard, for fear that the regime will collapse and tens of millions of refugees will spill across its border.

Second, Iranian rulers have long aspired to the status of a Great Power, and the mullahs who rule there now—perhaps inspired by neighboring India, Pakistan, and Israel—see nuclear weapons as a quick way to fulfill the dream. North Korean rulers—both of them (Kim Jong-il and his father before him, Kim Il-Sung)—have regarded themselves as “shrimp among whales,” and they have shrewdly played the bigger powers off against one another in order merely to survive.

The two Kims pursued nuclear weapons mainly as a bargaining chip—their only tradable commodity. The Iranians’ motives are unclear. Do they simply want a pocketful of nukes? Are there any inducements that will lure them away from the atomic genie? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking before a huge crowd today, mocked the Europeans’ latest proposal: “Do you think you are dealing with a 4-year-old to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?”

In one sense, he was clearly playing to the crowd’s nationalist emotions. But was he also sending a signal? And what is the signal: “Give me a better offer,” or “Screw you”?