North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal

By Jonathan Power

The agreement just signed by Iran, the US, the EU and Russia is more than a milestone, it changes the world. Perhaps.

It is bitterly opposed by Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to be the spoiler. Apparently Israel’s threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities remains a serious option, even though such an attack would only have a limited effect and would provoke Iran to raise the ante against Israel.

But that is not the only worry. There are two other things. The first is that Iran will fudge some of the agreements or that it will drag out the discussions scheduled for 6 months’ time when a comprehensive agreement should start to be negotiated. The second, more likely, is that the US Congress will refuse to lift sanctions. It was this, more than anything, that sabotaged the deal almost consummated by President Bill Clinton that would have led to the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear bomb programme.

After seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush– met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones – the Bush Administration’s negotiations ended up achieving almost the same as Clinton’s.
Well, not quite back to where the Clinton Administration had to leave off. On Bush’s watch Pyongyang tested its nuclear bomb.

This must count as one of President George W. Bush’s worst foreign policy feats. Commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honoured. And the Republican majority in Congress, as in Clinton’s time, torpedoed commitments.

In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a “light water” reactor that would help satisfy the North’s domestic power needs without giving it the possibility to extract nuclear bomb materials. (The reactor sits half finished.) In return the North agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection. But the two sides interpreted the agreement differently.

After a break the US decided to push forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities. It also said it would allow back UN inspectors. That was as far as Bush got.

Then Barack Obama became president. Four months later the negotiations came to a shuddering halt when North Korea carried out a second nuclear bomb test. He tried to pick up the pieces. In February last year in return for 240,000 tons of food aid the new North Korean regime agreed to allow UN inspectors in to monitor its suspension of uranium enrichment. The North also agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missiles.

The agreement did not last long. In April the North launched a rocket containing a satellite, arguing this was a scientific not a military endeavour. (It broke up in mid air.) Obama, I think mistakenly, decided to cancel the agreement. Nevertheless, the US was backed up by all the principle members of the UN Security Council.

In December, almost a year ago, the North launched a missile that could possibly reach the US. In February this year it carried out its third nuclear test. Now it says it is prepared to threaten a thermo-nuclear war.

Just to read my last sentence proves my comparison with North Korea doesn’t stand up. The Iranians have no intention of threatening nuclear war. Indeed, in my opinion, they never have had any intention of building nuclear weapons. I take at face value supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s declaration that it would go against Allah’s law to do such. I also cannot see for one minute why Iran would want to imitate North Korea’s tortuous circumlocutions and somersaults.

As for the US Congressional threat not to curtail sanctions the Iranian situation is different than it is with North Korea. Fortunately, many of the sanctions have been imposed by presidential decree and Obama can cancel them himself. Moreover, the EU and Russia don’t suffer the same constraints as the US and can lift theirs.

Israel remains the one problem. But depending on the route they take Israeli bombers would have to illegally cross Jordan, Iraq, Syria or Egypt to get to Iran. Wouldn’t these countries have no compunction about trying to blow them out of the sky?

The pitfalls in this Geneva agreement are all too apparent. Still, with a continuation of mutual willpower, the present accord should be a success and likewise the negotiations for a comprehensive, final agreement. The new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has done well. So has Barack Obama.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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