A South Korean Commentary

"The Iran Nuclear Deal and the North Korean Nuclear Issue"


The nuclear deal reached in Vienna on July 14 between Iran and the six world powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1), is historic in more than one way. Beyond constraining Iran’s capabilities for nuclear armament, it will have far-reaching implications for the geopolitics of the Middle East and the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. The deal is also historic in the intensity of divisiveness and controversy it causes in US domestic politics as well as between the United States and its allies and friends in the Middle East. Assessments are as diverse as the views on the strategy Iran is believed to be pursuing, levels of expectations on the nuclear negotiations, and the yardsticks to measure the value of the deal. Despite President Obama’s desperate campaign to sell it, the deal is problematic because it will not resolve the fundamental problem of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. All it does is kick the can down the road as far away as possible. Nonetheless, it may be, arguably, better than an alternative or no deal.

From Iran’s perspective, the deal certainly is a historic triumph. It has not given up anything fundamental, indispensable, irreversible, or of real substance. It has chosen a tactical step back today in order to move two steps forward tomorrow. If Iran’s ultimate goal is nuclear armament, the most sensible choice for now is to master the technology to enrich uranium. In that regard, Iran has secured the international recognition of its legitimate right to enrich uranium even though it has no practical need for enrichment for peaceful purposes. It is not only allowed to operate one third of its existing first generation IR-1 centrifuges but also to continue its research and development for far more efficient advanced centrifuges.

Whatever concessions Iran may have made on the scope of nuclear infrastructure and enriched uranium holdings are dispensable and easily reversible only if Iran’s right to enrich uranium and develop better enrichment technologies is guaranteed. In return for downsizing its inefficient enrichment plant and removing most of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) now, Iran is allowed the option to replace the existing first-generation centrifuges with more efficient ones and replenish the LEU in the future. Meanwhile, the windfall of sanctions relief will further empower Iran through robust economic growth.

In sum, the deal is worthwhile and sensible for Iran as a long-term investment. It has accepted a temporary retreat of 3 to 12 months from the nuclear threshold. However, if it succeeds in developing new centrifuges in the coming years, it may be able to inch back to a distance of three months from the threshold by the time the deal expires in ten years. Ten years may be a long time for the United States. For a country with several millennia of history, the timeframe may be different. In short, Iran does not lose anything essential in its path to eventual nuclear armament, assuming that it had no plan to acquire nuclear weapons for the next ten years anyway and its goal has all along been to be equipped with the capabilities to manufacture nuclear weapons within three months and wait until it decides to opt out of the NPT and move ahead towards outright nuclear armament. The trade-off it chose is between the guaranteed right to build up nuclear capabilities in the long-term and the distance to nuclear threshold.

Beyond the nuclear dimension, the deal opens a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the West. It recognizes Iran’s rightful place as a major player to be reckoned with in regional geopolitics. After decades of incrimination and ostracism, Iran is finally drawn out of the cold and embraced as a prospective partner for the United States and the West in containing the common scourge of Sunni fundamentalism led by ISIS. The deal thus strengthens the hand of the Shiite Iran in the regional strategic equation at the expense of its Sunni rivals and Israel.

What do the six world powers gain from this deal? The deal falls short of cutting the pathways for Iran to a nuclear weapon. While it has a reasonable chance of cutting the plutonium path by modifying the core of the Arak reactor, when it comes to the path of highly enriched uranium (HEU), it falls short. It only slows down the enrichment program temporarily. As such, the world powers may feel safer and more secure for some time to come, but such a sense of greater safety and security cannot be guaranteed indefinitely.

The substance of the agreement boils down to the extension of the breakout time from 3 months to 12 months, whereby the P5+1 gains at most 9 months for diplomatic or military intervention to prevent and contain Iran’s nuclear armament. This is no small achievement if Iran’s goal is to actually possess nuclear weapons at the earliest opportunity and at any cost. However, if Iran’s strategy is to build up its capabilities, which can be used in manufacturing nuclear weapons at some point down the road but without intention to cross the nuclear threshold for the time being, the world powers have struck a deal in pursuit of a nuclear mirage.

A more intrusive verification regime, which Iran accepted, is hailed as a great achievement. The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be better equipped to detect in a timely manner any diversion to a covert program. However, now that Iran’s right to enrich uranium is no longer in dispute or challenged, Iran has no reason to cheat at the risk of sanctions snap back. The smartest way for Iran to build up and upgrade its enrichment capacity is to comply faithfully with the agreement until it decides to break out and cross the nuclear threshold. The confidence that Iran will manage to gain through compliance with its commitments does not prevent the breakout. Iran can better pursue its nuclear ambition in peace and with the full blessings of the international community until the deal expires. As such, unimpeded access to Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities is not as valuable as it sounds now that Iran can openly continue with its enrichment program in broad daylight and under the eyes of the IAEA inspectors.

Is the deal better than the alternative? Again it all depends on whether Iran is intent on immediate nuclear armament. If not, Israel and Saudi Arabia might feel more comfortable living with Iran suffering under crippling sanctions while spinning more centrifuges and building up its stockpile of LEU rather than legitimizing Iran’s enrichment program. Netanyahu may believe that the deal deprives Israel of its military option, which, in his view, would be more effective in curbing Iran’s march to nuclear armament once Iran crosses the redline.

The deal has some troubling implications for the future of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Now any country can claim its legitimate right to enrich uranium, even if it has no peaceful need, as long as it accepts the most intrusive IAEA safeguards. There is no logic to dissuade Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries from pursuing an enrichment program. Iran shows that the global nonproliferation regime is losing relevance in dealing with countries determined to realize their nuclear ambition through compliance. It has set an example that compliance is a smarter way than defiance to become a nuclear threshold state. It is doubtful that the world will be safer and more secure if the Iran deal paves the way for the proliferation of nuclear threshold states with the inherent capacity to arm themselves with nuclear weapons in three months.

Lessons for Diplomacy with North Korea

What lessons can be drawn from the Iran deal in denuclearizing North Korea? The most compelling one is that diplomacy works best when backed by sanctions that are robust enough to change the strategic calculus of the country targeted. North Korea objects vociferously to any parallel with Iran because the Iran deal is about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang’s goal is to build an operational nuclear arsenal with long-range means of delivery and consolidate it as a fait accompli. It sees the value of the Six-Party Nuclear Talks only as a means of legitimizing its nuclear armament.

However, if North Korea faces comprehensive and crushing sanctions like Iran and sees no other option but to abandon its nuclear arsenal, Kim Jong-un has a lesson to learn from the Iran deal. For one thing, he could theoretically contemplate a deal whereby North Korea would retain its enrichment and reprocessing programs in exchange for the removal of its existing nuclear arsenal and fissile material holdings, foregoing any future production of nuclear weapons and weaponizable fissile materials, acceptance of intrusive verification based on the Additional Protocol, and sanctions relief phased with the implementation of the deal. This means that North Korea would be banned from possessing and deploying an operational nuclear arsenal but would be allowed to stay one step away from the nuclear threshold. North Korea would also claim all three items included in the September 19 Six-Party Joint Statement of 2005, namely a security assurance in the form of a peace treaty, normalization of relations with the United States, and a package of economic and energy assistance, including the provision of light water reactors.

If Kim Jong-un is resourceful enough to come up with such an idea, it would be an agonizing situation for North Korea’s Six-Party Talks partners. It would make no sense to reject what was offered to Iran. However, it would be controversial to accept a deal far worse than the one Pyongyang was willing to accept in September 2005. Under the September 19 Joint Statement of 2005, North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in return for the three items mentioned above. The deal broke down primarily because the United States was unwilling to include light water reactors in the economic and energy assistance package that North Korea defined as a make or break issue.

For some, allowing North Korea to retain intact the twin pathways to nuclear armament would be considered too much of a retreat to swallow from 2005, although it would still be far better than the Iran deal, given the stage North Korea has already reached in its nuclear armament.