The deal between Iran, the United States, and the European Union on Tehran’s nuclear program, if it becomes operationalized as scheduled, will ensure that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2025, if not well before. As Michael Mandelbaum has explained , the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to credibly threaten the use of force against Tehran resulted in the abandonment of decades of U.S. nuclear principles designed to prevent the spread of uranium enrichment, combined with the removal of effective sanctions that squeezed the regime. By any account, the Vienna negotiations were an unqualified success for Iran. The reason for that is simple: America’s failed bipartisan North Korean policy set a model for would-be proliferators on how to negotiate one’s way to a nuclear weapon. Now, the unwillingness or inability of Washington to learn the lessons of the past appears to ensure that regimes desiring to proliferate have a proven roadmap to follow.
With U.S. diplomacy having midwifed one failed deal and generated a new flawed one, the future will almost certainly see the further spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes. At almost every step of the Iran negotiations, the Obama Administration repeated past mistakes made by it, the Bush, and the Clinton Administrations. To paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, we are witnessing a nuclear march of folly. In order to prevent future similar outcomes, it’s of paramount importance that we understand the North Korean case.
The first mistake made by successive U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, in dealing with North Korea was perhaps the fatal one. Each set of U.S. negotiators assumed, or convinced itself, that a deal could be reached that would ultimately persuade Pyongyang to abandon its goal of achieving a nuclear or ballistic missile capability. Praising the 1994 Agreed Framework, which North Korea would cheat on, then-President Bill Clinton assured the nation that “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. . . . The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.” North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, even while it was engaged in negotiations with Clinton’s successor.
Similarly, in 2001, Wendy Sherman, who was the Clinton Administration’s policy coordinator for North Korea and became the lead negotiator with Iran, argued in favor of a summit between then-President George W. Bush and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, writing that Pyongyang “appears ready to make landmark commitments about [its] missile program.” In December 2012, contrary to Sherman’s hopes, Pyongyang successfully tested a long-range ballistic missile potentially capable of hitting Alaska.
Clinton and Sherman’s remarks simply reflected Washington’s self-delusion. Perhaps even more egregiously, then-Bush Administration lead negotiator Christopher Hill hailed a supposed 2005 breakthrough in the Six-Party Talks, claiming that “it is the DPRK commitment to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” that justified U.S. concessions such as giving light-water nuclear reactors, energy assistance, and economic cooperation. Of course, the DPRK tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006. To be generous, these were miscalculations of titanic proportions; to be critical, they were examples of wishful thinking that bordered on negligence.
A responsible U.S. policy should have begun from the assumption that nothing could be done to dissuade North Korea from abandoning its plan to gain the ability to build and use nuclear weapons, and that it would cheat on any agreement. While those committed to negotiations would have decried such a position as perhaps fatally undermining any dialogue, such a realistic outlook would have made U.S. negotiators far less willing to make repeated mistakes with Pyongyang.
Washington’s second mistake in dealing with North Korea was of almost equal magnitude—namely, that any deal, even a bad one, was better than no deal at all. U.S. negotiators convinced themselves that only by concluding some type of deal could America retain any leverage over the would-be proliferator. Chief Clinton negotiator Robert Gallucci repeatedly claimed, “We’d be better off with [an imperfect] deal than without it.” Yet in reality, just the opposite has proven true. Once bad deals abetted Pyongyang’s ability to attain nuclear weapons, as well as their means of delivery, in the form of long-range ballistic missiles, Washington instead lost any remaining leverage it had. North Korea essentially bought for itself permanent immunity, thanks to its new ability to threaten nuclear retaliation for any perceived threats to the continued existence of its regime.
Just as bad, Pyongyang understood that Washington was desperate to achieve a deal. That allowed it, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, to negotiate from a position of strength, ultimately gaining millions of dollars in aid. Meanwhile, the world’s superpower was reduced to the role of petitioner, all but begging for talks to continue. Similarly, Iranian envoys have repeatedly used President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s eagerness for a deal against them. It cannot be repeated enough that negotiating a bad deal is worse than achieving no deal, in no small measure because of the adverse negotiating environment it imposes on U.S. diplomats.
Pyongyang’s confidence during the years of nuclear negotiations was attributable, as well, to a third U.S. mistake: taking the threat of force off the table. The Clinton Administration pledged in the Agreed Framework that it would not invade North Korea, and Hill reiterated that position officially in 2005 in the Six-Party Talks. Any regime worried about its ultimate existence could only see such a U.S. promise as surrender; it would no longer fear the consequences of stalling or cheating on any agreements that are made. Once America rules out the ultimate sanction, building an illicit nuclear capability becomes a game of patience, which U.S. administrations, on a four-year electoral clock, are unable to deter. Based on his track record, President Obama ’s statements that “nothing is off the table” with respect to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon simply were not credible, leading ultimately to the same result.
The fourth U.S. mistake is to commit to open-ended negotiations. This capitulation flowed naturally from abandoning the idea of using force. Having adopted that position, the Bush Administration gave Pyongyang all the time it needed to build a successful nuclear program. It took North Korea 12 years from the 1994 Agreed Framework to make its first nuclear test, and another six years for a successful long-range missile test. All the while, the Kim regime kept the Americans at the negotiating table, going through six rounds of the futile Six-Party Talks. In a related way, Iran has been toying with the international community since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demanded in 2003 that it stop all uranium enrichment and reprocessing. Just since Barack Obama agreed to join fully the P5+1 negotiations, in 2009, Tehran has increased the number of its centrifuges from 164 to 19,000. The Vienna agreement to cut the number of centrifuges to just over 6,000 is still more than 35 times the number Iran had when it began its diplomatic dueling with Obama.
The longer would-be proliferators can stretch out negotiations, the more likely they are to present their counterparts with a fait accompli that results in their original goal being achieved. U.S. officials must break out of the trap of missed deadlines, extensions, and almost infinite willingness to stay at the table in the hopes of getting a deal.
Just as worryingly, Washington appears unable to play hardball. The fifth mistake in dealing with Pyongyang was to give up its only means of pressuring the Kim regime. Most U.N. sanctions on North Korea were watered down by its allies China and Russia in the Security Council. North Korea simply ignored whatever sanctions remained. However, in mid-2005, the Bush Administration froze $24 million in personal assets of North Korean leaders held in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia. This was the most effective sanction levied against Pyongyang, and it forced the Kim regime back to the negotiating table. Yet just two years later, in a bid to reach yet another agreement, the Bush Administration agreed to unfreeze most of the assets. After receiving its cash, the Kim regime again failed to live up to its promises and the Six-Party Talks broke down shortly thereafter. Today, in agreeing to lift its sanctions against Iran and release the staggering sum of $150 billion, the Obama Administration is repeating the Bush Administration’s mistake and directly strengthening the Iranian regime while abetting its violent behavior abroad. “Snapback” provisions are a fig leaf for the U.S. surrender of meaningful pressure, as with Pyongyang.
The Vienna deal will be debated for years, not least because it changes nothing in Iran’s desire ultimately to develop a nuclear bomb, just as Pyongyang never relinquished its goal to build a nuclear force. In the same way as it did with North Korea, Washington is placing its trust in an Iranian regime that has repeatedly broken agreements with the IAEA, ignored U.N. demands that it not enrich uranium, and appears to be pursuing the reprocessing of plutonium as well. Even as the Iranian leadership sponsored parades chanting “death to America” while its negotiators sat in Vienna, Obama showcased the triumph of hope over experience and ignored the past 36 years of history by reiterating his belief that the Iranian system may evolve peacefully thanks to this deal, stating “it is possible to change.” It may well be, but it certainly is not in the interest of the Iranian regime to let that happen. This same myopia has pervaded U.S. thinking about North Korea, as successive administrations have convinced themselves that the Kim regime is too brutal and fragile to last. Now in their third-generation, the Kims and their supporters revel in spitting in the Americans’ eyes.
Historians will one day have to account for the fact that the diplomats of the world’s most powerful country are regularly bested by their opponents and repeat the same fatal mistakes. Whether out of hubris, ignorance, or naivety, top U.S. officials consistently misread the fundamental nature of illiberal dictatorships. The risk-averse nature of U.S. policy is faithfully replicated in its diplomacy, ultimately ensuring that the very goal it seeks to prevent is realized.
The repeated triumph of hope over experience has resulted in a de facto U.S. template for enabling would-be proliferators to successfully achieve their goals, all under the aegis of diplomatic negotiations. Having seen impoverished North Korea become a nuclear power, and Iran succeed in limiting the period of supposed restrictions on its nuclear activities, any future proliferator may be expected to study the five mistakes of U.S. negotiators listed above and plot their way to a nuclear future. The result will be a United States continually enmeshed in meaningless negotiations that contribute to the creation of a world in which nuclear weapons are increasingly common. Only by unlearning the bad habits of the past twenty years of nuclear negotiating can Washington hope to prevent more nuclear powers from emerging.