Iran Nuclear Deal: Lessons from North Korea

06 Apr, 2015    ·   4858

Prof Vyjayanti Raghavan traces the similarities between the failed US-North Korea nuclear deal and the recently announced Iran nuclear deal

After over a decade-long and torturous negotiation, Iran and the US reached an agreement over the former’s nuclear program. There has been some light applause from the international community but that is all. Only US President Barack Obama has been trumpeting its success.

The rest of the world’s muted response is for good reason: a previous such agreement that the US reached in 1994 with a country aspiring to achieve nuclear weapons – North Korea – came badly unstuck. In that agreement too, promises were made and broken by both sides in a cloud of acrimony.

There are two problems with such agreements. First, the nuclear weapons policy of the country wishing to build nuclear weapons is determined by its medium term threat perceptions. Second, such agreements are put in place by a strategy (on the part of the nuclear- aspirant country) to buy time while it wards off international pressure in the form of sanctions etc. This being so, there is an inbuilt structural flaw in such agreements that allows both parties to cry foul that the other side is reneging.

Countries can start finding faults over the smallest things if they do not want to stick to the agreement.

The Iran nuclear deal is therefore reminiscent of what happened when North Korea signed the Geneva Accord in 1994. The Iran deal could follow the same pattern unless great care is taken – and even then it could come unstuck.

The US-North Korea Deal
To recall, the US had entered into negotiations with North Korea only because it had threatened to withdraw from the NPT. According to the final agreement, North Korea agreed to remain in the NPT, to submit to regular IAEA inspections, and to give up its entire nuclear program.

In return,  the US agreed to end the provocative Team Spirit military exercises that it carried out annually with South Korea, lift the economic sanctions, and provide North Korea with proliferation-resistant Light water Reactors.

There was an overall sense of relief and euphoria all around, just as now. But as it turned out, the agreement unravelled very quickly. This was essentially because it had been hurriedly entered into by both parties without much thought put into the details. In a sense, both parties were trying to buy time and seek a temporary solution.

The US had signed because it was convinced that it was only a matter of time before the Kim Jong-Il regime would collapse. It never occurred to Washington that it might not, which is what happened eventually. The US had not worked out either the details of the costing of the LWR or the incompatibility of the existing distribution infrastructure in North Korea for meeting its domestic energy requirements. More importantly, in the current context, the US’s approach all along had been to contain North Korea’s nuclear program and not to eradicate it, just as it is in Iran’s case.

Finally, when it came to implementing the agreement, other obstacles cropped up because not all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities had been covered and the US made that a major issue.

On North Korea’s side, its real motives were to only engage with the US in negotiations and get as much as possible out of it to help with its persistent electricity shortages.  But it was determined to build nuclear weapons and was not going to give up so easily. It also feared a pre-emptive attack by the US, just as Iran fears one by Israel.

In the end, both sides began picking on minor infringements – such as very minor delays in doing things that had been agreed upon. The result? Within a few years, the agreement was a dead letter.

Deja Vu?
So, after a lot of finger-pointing by both sides about bad faith, in 2002, the agreement failed completely and North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003.  

Will history repeat itself in the case of the Iran-US agreement?

The answer depends on its weakest points, and there already is one to begin with: domestic politics. Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayotallah Khamenei both have to cater to hardliners at home. While Khamenei prefers the agreement to be vague, leaving Tehran room to work out the details with the hardliners before the deal is finally signed in June, US Secretary of State John Kerry is being forced to present the specifics to the Congress – which in effect means that this could result in differences right from the start.

The two countries have a few months to work things out and maybe everything will turn out well. But on the face of it – Saudi Arabia is already tapping Pakistan for a nuclear cover – it appears like it will be a difficult task.