Michael Rubin 9-2-15
President Barack Obama appears to have secured the 34 Senate votes necessary to guarantee that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the “Iran deal” becomes law. Iran will reap a $100 billion windfall, money that will disproportionately favor its military. After more than a decade of cheating on its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards agreement, Iran essentially emerges with international assistance, a blank slate on its past nuclear weapons research, and an industrial scale PROGRAM that will enable it to build a nuclear arsenal should it so choose.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may want to depict the Iran Deal as fool proof, but they would be foolish to place undue trust in the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not directly endorsed the agreement, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appear hostile to it. The politicians with whom they stuck the agreement have little authority over the military and procurement PROGRAMS that are of most concern. But it is the nature of American politics to never say sorry and to never admit fault. Obama, Kerry, their aides, and the 34 senators who have endorsed the nuclear deal (and the corollary empowerment of a terror sponsor like Iran) will likely perform intellectual somersaults to exculpate Iran and blame their political rivals in America for the deal’s failure should Iran cheat.
There is precedent. In 1994, the United States and North Korea struck the AGREED Framework. It was meant to keep North Korea within the confines of the NPT and to stop its development of nuclear weapons. On both counts, it failed. What is telling, however, is how American diplomats and the Agreed Framework’s negotiators bent over backward to exculpate North Korea in the face of blatant cheating.
North Korea kept up the pretense of abiding by the Agreed Framework for a few years, even as it sought to cheat along the margins. Still, further talks about North Korea’s ballistic missiles went nowhere, nor did relations improve. Finally, On March 31, 1998, the North Korean News Agency charged the United States with delaying both fuel oil delivery and construction of the light-water reactors. Over subsequent days, the verbal assault escalated. Authorities in Pyongyang complained bitterly of American military activity in South Korea even though the White House had actually canceled its annual military EXERCISE with South Korea for the year. Finally, on May 8, 1998, the North Korean foreign ministry announced it would no longer abide by the Agreed Framework.
Defiance worked, as the Clinton administration quickly offered North Korea more than $100 million in new aid. State Department spokesman James Rubin defended U.S. policy against the General Accounting Office highlighted North Korean cheating, including hiding weapons-grade plutonium. (Rubin claimed that North Korean accounting discrepancies did not constitute a violation). In the year following the North Korean abandonment of the Agreed Framework, food aid almost tripled. North Korean authorities demanded $300 million simply to permit inspection of an underground suspected nuclear site near Kumchang-ni and $1 billion to stop missile exports. Pyongyang justified the bribe in grievance, claiming that the United States was “seriously insulting the DPRK’s honor and dignity.” Clinton succumbed to the extortion. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright justified offering additional compensation to get the Agreed Framework back on track. It didn’t work. With U.S.-North Korea talks ongoing in New York, North Korea launched a missile over Japan. Talks CONTINUED into the twilight of the Clinton administration, and Pyongyang’s cheating reached new levels. Sure, North Korea eventually suspended missile tests, but it accelerated both missile development and exports. And, as Kim Jong-il courted Clinton, urging him to visit the reclusive country, North Korean authorities also decided to pursue a full-scale, covert uranium enrichment capability.
President George W. Bush and his senior advisors were not so willing to engage if Pyongyang was not honoring its agreements. The only exception was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who less than three months into his tenure, declared, “We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off.” (He later backtracked, saying that he had leaned “too forward in my skis”).
Talk of a presidential visit was off the table; the Bush team wanted only working-level meetings to discuss the AGREED Framework, missile PROGRAMS, and proliferation. “I’ve got a message to Kim Jong-il: fulfill your end of the bargain,” Bush told Asian newspaper editors in October 2001, adding, “He can blame it on who he wants, but he ought to fulfill his end of the agreement….”
Powell was not so willing to tell diplomats to stand down. He sought engagement, just not publicly, even after intelligence surfaced with regard to the extent of North Korean uranium enrichment. Without White House clearance, he approved the attendance of Special Envoy Charles Pritchard at a ceremony celebrating Agreed Framework progress.
The Pentagon was angry about Pritchard’s trip, given the magnitude of North Korean cheating. The issue was not simply Bush reinterpretation of intelligence. The Clinton administration had been unable during its last two years in office to certify that North Korea had stopped seeking uranium enrichment capability.
On October 3, 2002, during a meeting in Pyongyang, Assistant Secretary James Kelly told North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, that that Washington knew that North Korea had produced highly enriched uranium in violation of the Agreed Framework. Kang admitted as much the following day, and so assistance to North Korea was suspended. Pyongyang responded by announcing withdrawal from the NPT, the expulsion of IAEA monitors, and a restart of the Yongbyon reactor. Bush announced that the United States would no longer be bound by the bilateral Agreed Framework if North Korea were not. “My predecessor, in a good-faith effort, ENTERED into a framework agreement,” Bush explained. “The United States honored its side of the agreement. North Korea didn’t. While we felt the agreement was in force, North Korea was enriching uranium.”
Many proponents of the Agreed Framework and diplomacy were not happy. To jumpstart diplomacy, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage downplayed allegations of North Korean cheating. He dismissed reports North Korea was test-firing engines, saying that “there is nothing in itself wrong with that.” Armitage’s ham-handed exculpation backfired: North Korea seized upon his report to affirm its own behavior while those invested in North Korea engagement took it as a green light for Bush-bashing.
“Instead of picking up the ball where Bill Clinton dropped it, George W. Bush moved the goalposts when he assumed the presidency in 2001,” Leon Sigal, a former New York Times editorial writer, remarked. Sigal’s blaming of Bush was dishonest on two counts: it was North Korea that unilaterally sought to move the goalposts, and the cessation of fuel oil shipments — which set off the cascade of North Korean defiance—was a decision made multilaterally. And Joel S. Wit, a Clinton-era State Department official, sought to spin North Korea’s actions POSITIVELY, writing in The New York Times “the fact that [Pyongyang] had confessed to a secret nuclear PROGRAM is a sign that North Korea may be looking for a way out of a potential crisis.”
Analysts who aimed to PROTECT the NPT argued that Bush erred by suggesting that North Korea’s nuclear breakthroughs were a result of cheating. Perhaps, they argued, North Korean scientists had found new ways to meet their goals not covered by their agreements. This was also disingenuous; evidence pointed firmly to subterfuge. An even more ridiculous example of engagers’ wishful thinking was the argument that North Korean bluster was simply a prelude to its offer of a grand bargain, one which Bush ignored. Some even adopted Pyongyang’s line that delays in the provision of light water reactors justified its violations. Certainly, the two sides disagreed over schedule, but that did not excuse North Korea’s wholesale violation of its agreements.
Back to Iran, and the crystal ball of what likely will occur when a new U.S. administration less vested in the Iran DEAL takes office and looks at Iranian actions less as Iran’s lawyer and more objectively. Those who have a personal stake in the deal — Obama, Kerry, Ernest Moniz, and their various aides, will likely to blame their political opponents than the rogue regime that has actually cheated. When high-profile talks make CAREERS, those invested in the talks are loath to admit failure, and so they remain in a state of denial about their opponents’ insincer