A U.S. president reaches a nuclear agreement with a rogue state. He steps before the microphones and declares, “This is a good deal for the United States.” The pariah nation will, he continues, “freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program” and the “entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”
It was President Bill Clinton speaking about the 1994 Nuclear Framework Agreement with North Korea. Of course, it didn’t turn out as advertised.
Today, North Korea has an estimated arsenal of 10-16 nuclear weapons. Negotiations with North Korea followed the same tortured path of fits and starts and broken promises we see today in the talks with Iran. So why should we expect the outcome for Iran to be any different than for North Korea?
In hindsight, it is crystal clear that North Korea’s intent all along was to use the negotiation process not only to buy time but to gain concessions from the West.
Pyongyang, like Tehran, claimed it was all about North Korea’s legitimate energy needs. It was not. It was about getting the rest of the world slowly used to the idea that North Korea’s nuclear program was inevitable. The stop-and-go nature of the talks, whereby a bold promise to dismantle something would be followed a few months later by disputes over verification, and eventually a nuclear test, were meant to wear down our patience. Goalposts were slowly but surely moved in North Korea’s direction. Today there are no posts left because the goal has been attained.
Whether the agreement holds or not, Iran has already achieved a strategic victory over the U.S. It has forced us to concede the possibility of a future nuclear Iran.
The same thing is happening with Iran. The Obama administration started out promising to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear capability. But the framework agreement reached with Iran last week would let Iran keep its nuclear infrastructure. It also implicitly promises that, 10 years down the line, the U.S. may be willing to live with a nuclear Iran. As far as that implication goes, whether the breakout time is one year or three months is immaterial. What matters is that the U.S. has signaled that something less than full nuclear dismantlement is acceptable, which in Iranian eyes is likely to be interpreted as a glide path to international acceptance of its nuclear program.
Think about it. Whether the agreement holds or not, Iran has already achieved a strategic victory over the U.S. It has forced us to concede the possibility of a future nuclear Iran. It also has delinked all of Tehran’s bad behavior on terrorism and destabilizing the Middle East from the nuclear question. Even if Iran backed out of the talks tomorrow, it will have made clear that the U.S. has given its tacit consent to Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Given the denunciation of the agreement last week by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it may have been Tehran’s intention all along to push the envelope and let the talks collapse. The framework agreement may have been a ploy just to knock the U.S. off its full dismantlement position and to pocket other concessions.
The only way to stop Iran is to abandon this agreement and start over. This means tougher sanctions to force Iran truly to give up its nuclear infrastructure in its entirety. Some have tried to dismiss Sen. Mark Kirk’s idea of pushing for tougher sanctions now as meddling with the negotiations. In fact, Kirk’s proposal may be the only way get negotiations restarted on a more serious footing.
It may not work, but a tougher sanctions approach offers a far better chance of stopping a future Iranian bomb than the current agreement. It also has a better chance of stopping war. The Iranian agreement is likely to go the same way of the 1994 North Korean agreement, only with North Korea there were not terrified countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia waiting in the wings willing to take action.
We’ve seen this movie before. This is no time for reruns.
Originally published in The Washington Times