For months, various groups, former government officials and foreign policy experts have called on the United States to engage Iran directly to find a diplomatic solution to the continuing nuclear standoff. The recent Bush administration decision to offer direct talks with Iran, with appropriate conditions to ensure that a diplomatic solution also meets US security objectives, is a positive step forward in resolving the showdown with Tehran. The incentives being offered to Iran to abandon their uranium enrichment and plutonium production and reprocessing programs include guaranteed access to modern, power producing nuclear reactors and security guarantees. Just making such an offer serves US diplomatic and security interests, and Iran’s acceptance would be a security win for the United States and its allies. While some may criticize the US for waiting too long — and many in Europe will if the deal fails — taking the right decision gives diplomatic efforts the best chance to succeed and should be applauded from the left and the right.
But Iran is not the only nuclear crisis in the world today. North Korea’s nuclear program is arguably a more dangerous and acute threat to US interests. When the Bush administration took office, North Korea might have had access to enough material to make one nuclear weapon, material acquired while President George H.W. Bush was President. North Korea may now possess enough material to produce more than 10 nuclear weapons and acquires enough to build a new weapon every year. (It should be noted that North Korea did not produce and gain access to any nuclear weapon usable material during the 8-year tenure of President Clinton). President Bush boldly stated that the United States would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, but has not found a way to ensure US policy backs up US rhetoric. Important, but secondary US interests have been allowed to derail progress on the nuclear issue, and the six party talks insisted on by the United States are dead in the water.
In our increasingly interconnected world, it will not go unnoticed that the terms being offered to Iran to resolve the nuclear standoff are far more forthcoming than the current US approach to North Korea, where the US is insisting that all nuclear programs of any kind be eliminated from North Korea. In fact, many long time Korea watchers cannot help but notice that the proposal to Iran looks a lot like the Agreed Framework worked out in 1994 between the United States and North Korea. That deal would have provided modern, power producing nuclear reactors to North Korea in exchange for North Korea scrapping its plutonium production program. The pact was savaged by Republicans in Congress throughout the 1990s and eventually torpedoed by the Bush administration in 2002 on allegation that North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program through the same network Iran used to acquire its program. The Bush administration was right to act on the suspicion of cheating by Pyongyang, but the administration was too anxious to kill the Agreed Framework and have failed to come up with any viable alternatives to that agreement. The result is a totally unconstrained nuclear weapons program in North Korea and a massively increased security threat to the United States, South Korea and Japan.
In one important respect, the offer bring made to Iran is much more controversial than anything offered to Pyongyang in the 1990s. The US-DPRK deal made under President Clinton required that North Korea abandon forever the means to produce enriched uranium or weapon plutonium, by requiring North Korea to comply with the 1991 North-South Korea Denuclearization Agreement. The offer reportedly being made to Iran would allow them at some undetermined point in the future to resume uranium enrichment if and when all suspicions of their nuclear ambitions are resolved. Permission to resume enrichment would have to come through the UN Security Council, which would give the US a veto over the plan. This condition gives the US confidence that only an Iran fully compliant with nuclear norms would ever have a sanctioned enrichment program.
The promise of a future enrichment program or a functioning nuclear reactor has risks, but they are manageable compared with Iran continuing to pursue its current program. It would be the clear lesser of two evils. If Iran decides to pursue a strategy of full compliance in the hopes of resuming a nuclear weapons program under the full protection of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in the future, the US and its allies will have the same options they have today. In the meantime, engagement may work to undermine the nature of the Iranian regime and allow an evolutionary form of regime change to take place.
The issue that will eventually catch up with the current administration is whether it can offer one potential nuclear state a better deal than it offers other nuclear proliferators. There is no guarantee that the current proposal to Iran will be accepted, but it is a forgone conclusion that North Korea will look at the terms being offered to Iran and start to demand equal treatment. There is some hope that North Korea would be willing to accept a deal similar to that being offered to Tehran, and real compliance with such a deal would also be a security win for the United States. To make a similar offer to North Korea will require additional shifts in Bush administration policy that may further test the ideological flexibility of the President and his cabinet. But making the offer to North Korea would have a similar diplomatic benefit to the United States, reassuring key states including China and South Korea that Washington takes North Korea’s nuclear program seriously and is willing to go the extra mile to make diplomacy work. To date, they have not convinced states of that commitment and it has cost Washington considerable confidence and leverage in the region.
Jon Wolfsthal is a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former policy advisor to the US department of Energy. He served as an on-site monitor for the United States Government in North Korea during the 1990s and is the author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Threats (2005).