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The Netanyahu Speech and the Open Letter: Lessons on Iran from North Korea

Stephan Haggard
Sunday, March 15, 2015, 2:00 PM
In his speech before Congress the other day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following comparison between the Iranian nuclear program and the North Korean path to nuclear weapons:
Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn't stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors.

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In his speech before Congress the other day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following comparison between the Iranian nuclear program and the North Korean path to nuclear weapons:
Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn't stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb. Now, we're warned that within five years North Korea could have an arsenal of 100 nuclear bombs. Like North Korea, Iran, too, has defied international inspectors. It's done that on at least three separate occasions---2005, 2006, 2010. Like North Korea, Iran broke the locks, shut off the cameras.
Where is the Prime Minister right and where is he wrong in seeking parallels between Iran and North Korea? There is one point on which the Korean record strongly comports with Netanyahu’s assumptions: The ideal way to restrict Iran’s, or any other potential nuclear state’s, break-out time, is to negotiate the disablement and ultimately dismantlement of its physical infrastructure. I am unsympathetic with those who argue that you can’t destroy what the Iranians know. While it’s true as far as it goes, you can dismantle what they have built. And while they may be rebuild it, rebuilding takes time, and time is always what we are buying. But as with much in the Prime Minister’s speech, the issue is not what is ideal but what will work. And on that score, Netanyahu’s strategy is laced with risk. Netanyahu’s account of the current state of play contained some important omissions, if not outright misrepresentations. We do not know precisely how long it would take the Iranians to break out, but the interim agreement (technically called the Joint Plan of Action) has already capped elements of the Iranian program. It is unclear how the Prime Minister can conclude that Iran’s break-out time has actually gotten shorter or that it would diminish further under a subsequent arrangement. The idea that the P5+1 would reach an agreement that actually shortens Iran’s breakout time is---to put it bluntly---ridiculous. For the record, it is worth simply ticking off what the Joint Plan of Action has done:
  • Iran’s stockpile of 19.75 percent enriched uranium was eliminated through a combination of dilution and conversion to uranium oxide. As a benchmark, the threshold for highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is often considered 20 percent but, in fact, effective weapons grade is much higher, above 80 percent.
  • Iran’s stockpile of gasified uranium enriched up to five percent has been capped by feeding the newly produced amounts into the uranium oxide process.
  • No new centrifuges have been installed or constructed and the more advanced IR-2 centrifuges have not been used to produce enriched uranium. Half of the installed centrifuges have not been used for enrichment.
  • No new enrichment facilities have been constructed.
  • No fuel has been produced, tested, or transferred to the Arak nuclear power plant and no components have been added to the reactor, effectively halting construction.
  • The IAEA has been granted daily access to Natanz and Fordow, with certain portions of these facilities monitored by 24-hour cameras.
The Prime Minister put substantial emphasis in his speech not only on the terms of the agreement but also on what will happen when it expires. But these arguments make little sense. In principle, Iran would be able to operate as many centrifuges as it wants if the agreement contains a sunset provision, which would obviously shorten the break-out time. But the purpose of the agreement is to steer Iran and the US along a policy course on which Iran’s interest in pursuing such a nuclear option would be reduced, as would be our necessity of responding. If, when the agreement expires, the Iranians seek to break out, we would then be no worse off than we are today. And, of course, without a deal, the Iranians will do what they want anyway, and thus almost certainly reduce their break-out time. The focus on sunset provisions is, therefore, overwrought and fails to acknowledge our ability to respond to provocations in the future. What does the North Korean case tell us about the history of such “freezes”? The record is less obvious than the Prime Minister suggests. The Agreed Framework signed in 1994 after the first nuclear crisis did, in fact, freeze the North Korean nuclear program and particularly its reactor at Yongbyon. The explicit mention that Netanyahu makes of North Korea---quoted above---has to do with the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, which had two causes. The first was the North Korean decision to abrogate it by developing a HEU capacity. The technology for this effort, probably limited or even experimental, came from the Pakistanis via the A.Q. Khan network. The other reason the agreement broke down, however, was that President Bush’s team responded to this derogation by suspending heavy fuel oil shipments that were a component of the Agreed Framework. The administration could have built a coalition of restraint---including with the Chinese---and negotiated over the North Korean lapse. The Prime Minister noted that inspectors detect violations; they don’t stop them. But the actions that North Korea took, and arguably North Korea’s entire path to the its first nuclear test in October 2006, were driven by an ineffective American strategy that bears at least some resemblance to what Netanyahu is proposing now. North Korea’s nuclear capability did not emanate from the HEU program over which the Agreed Framework broke down but from reprocessing of spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor that the North Koreans restarted following the suspension of fuel oil shipments. The Prime Minister’s strategy is not altogether clear, but its first component is to dramatically widen the scope of the negotiations to include three demands that are not currently on the negotiating table: that Iran stop aggression against its neighbors; that it stop supporting terrorism; and that it stop threatening Israel. The Bush administration considered a widening of the agenda with respect to North Korea in the first two years of his first term as well, and with little effect. The way to achieve the laudable objectives that Netanyahu outlines are not to negotiate with Iran, but to deter and defend: to form coalitions of allies, to maintain deterrent capabilities, to use them when appropriate, to interdict financing and weapons and to kill terrorists. Indeed, widening the negotiating agenda at this point will not have the effect of “reaching a better deal.” It will, rather, have the effect of collapsing the talks with Iran and upsetting the delicate coalition-building process that has maintained p5+1 unity on the issue. Does anyone think that if the P5+1 takes the route suggested by Netanyahu---assuming China, Russia, and the Europeans signed on---that the Joint Plan of Action would remain in place? The second component of the Prime Minister’s strategy is to increase sanctions against Iran. As part of the interim agreement there has been some loosening of constraints on Iran, so this component of Netanyahu’s strategy would involve stopping or reversing commitments the P5+1 has made. The Prime Minister’s reasoning is that tougher sanctions would reset the negotiation process in a way that would allow the P5+1 to make stiffer demands. But the fatal flaw here is that these actions will not necessarily set the stage for tougher sanctions and a resumption of negotiations, and thus will not set the stage for a “better deal.” First, the moves suggested by the Prime Minister would likely lead to a complete unraveling of the delicately constructed sanctions regime, leaving the Iranians better, rather than worse, off. And second, they would vindicate the position of those in Tehran who believe that the United States cannot be trusted, making it more difficult for the current government to continue the negotiations. As a result, the Prime Minister’s strategy would take us closer to difficult decisions about the use of force that run tremendous risks not only for the United States but for Israel as well. The Open Letter signed by 47 senators on the legal status of any agreement the president might reach now runs in parallel to the strategy suggested by the Israeli Prime Minister. I side with those who see the Senate letter as a virtually unprecedented effort to undermine the capacity of the President to negotiate an agreement with a foreign power. In effect, the operational core of the letter rests on two points. The first is that an executive agreement differs from either a congressional-executive agreement or a full-blown treaty in not requiring congressional approval. Second, the letter offers a veiled threat that the US under a subsequent administration could choose to abrogate the agreement (“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”) But why would the next president do so? I can see two reasons, and North Korean parallels are once again germane. The first is the case made by the Prime Minister: that we should scuttle the ongoing negotiations and perhaps even a concluded agreement in order to get a “better deal.” The history of the Agreed Framework---which was also a cluster of interlocking executive and multilateral agreements---is not comforting on this score. The US did not get a “better deal” following the breakdown of the Agreed Framework and, in fact, has not gotten any deal at all. In addition, reneging on the agreement simply to improve it would cast doubt on the integrity of US commitments, as Vice President Biden's stinging rebuke to the letter argues. In the eyes of the world---although apparently not to all members of Congress---executive agreements are in fact binding under international law; an encyclopedic treatment by the Congressional Research Service of Senate powers with respect to treaties and agreements makes this point clearly. Of course, the US would have cause to revoke the agreement in the case that Iran openly violated it. Yet as the events of 2002-2003 on the Korean peninsula show, that might not be the best course of action even if Iran reneged. For example, it may be worthwhile to underline the continued value of the agreement while using other instruments---from sanctions to force---to encourage compliance. The US has rightly taken such a position vis-à-vis the September 2005 Joint Statement with North Korea, which outlines the broad principles that could undergird a nuclear negotiation, including dismantling capabilities in return for recognition and economic assistance. Despite the fact that the North Koreans have effectively renounced it, US diplomats rightly return to it as the likely cornerstone of any future progress on the issue. Congressional involvement in the making of foreign policy is a complex subject and by no means settled either practically or in the law; the CRS study cited above provides an introduction and it runs to over 200 pages. Current legislation being advanced by Republicans would either require congressional review of the deal---the President would veto this on both constitutional and substantive grounds---or exercise influence by putting a 60-day restriction on the president's invocation of sanctions waivers previously provided by Congress. The latter exercise of congressional power could be used to review the negotiated outcome or to scuttle it altogether by blocking the ability of the President to make the needed quid-pro-quo: the gradual relaxation of sanctions. For those doubtful that the sanctions have had effect, the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman has recently offered a thorough assessment. The conclusion? The sanctions have worked to get Iran to the table; in North Korea they clearly have not, thanks to continued tacit support from China. The CRS findings suggest there is at least some reason to believe that the threat of re-imposing sanctions could hold Iran to a bargain. The negotiations are not without risk, but they appear to be much less risky than the approach being advanced by the Prime Minister and his allies in the Senate. Stephan Haggard is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the University of California San Diego. He has written extensively on the politics, economics and security of the Korean peninsula and is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog, from which this material was adapted.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies; director, Korea-Pacific Program; and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. He works on the political economy of developing countries, with a particular interest in Asia and the Korean peninsula. Along with Marcus Noland, he runs the Witness to Transformation blog on the Korean peninsula at

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