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Negotiators from the world’s major powers sit down with Iran this week for more talks on its nuclear program, just weeks after North Korea tested another nuclear weapon.
If the connection between these two events isn’t obvious, it should be: North Korea’s nuclear saga is a cautionary tale for anyone attempting to bargain with the Islamic Republic.
Back in the 1980s, when suspicions were first raised about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the country’s leadership was keen to distract attention with a show of clean hands. It joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, promised not to make the bomb and said it would report the whereabouts of all its nuclear material to international inspectors.
Iran has been hiding nuclear work and sites since about the same time, although it was one of the treaty’s original signatories. Like Iran, North Korea was soon suspected of hiding things after that initial show of clean hands. It stiffed inspectors and made lame excuses for doing so. And, like Iran, North Korea built plants that generated fissile material that was useful for making bombs, but unnecessary for producing civilian nuclear power.
By 1994, matters had come to a head. North Korea’s lies were bolder, and the pace of its nuclear program had accelerated. Its scientists, rounding the last turn, could see the finish line. The U.S. and other world powers had to decide how to stop them: Would it be United Nations resolutions, or economic sanctions, or war?
The response was to negotiate a deal. The U.S. agreed to send North Korea much-needed shipments of heavy oil and to endorse the building of a new nuclear-power reactor, for which South Korea would be the lead supplier. In return, North Korea agreed to stop producing nuclear material, on the condition that it could keep its nuclear sites, plus the fuel it had already made. This deal was to be a first step only. North Korea would later give up all of its nuclear material and dismantle its sites, at which point the U.S. would drop sanctions and restore normal relations.
The deal fell apart in 2002, when a U.S. diplomat accused North Korea of secretly building a facility to enrich uranium. Oil shipments stopped, and the promised nuclear reactor wasn't built. Then, as everyone now knows, North Korea used its material and its sites to make nuclear bombs. The tremors from weapon testing arrived in 2006.
What should this experience teach us about the talks with Iran? Last year, the U.S. and its negotiating partners in the so-called P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. -- offered an interim deal for limited economic and technical aid. In exchange, Iran would lower (but not stop) its production of nuclear fuel, and would send a portion of its stock out of the country.
Most important under the proposed agreement was that Iran would be able to keep its nuclear sites and all of the low-enriched uranium it had already made. It would ship out only its much smaller stock of medium-grade fuel. CNN reported last week that a similar deal will be on the table again at the talks in Kazakhstan.
This initial agreement with Iran would be just the first step in a process. Later, the parties would move to a comprehensive arrangement in which Iran would, perhaps (the details are still vague), get rid of its enriched uranium and limit -- to a token, face-saving level -- its ability to make more of it. The U.S. would, perhaps, drop most of its sanctions and move toward normal relations.
Sound familiar? It should. The North Korea and Iran deals are essentially the same. After the agreement with North Korea, the country's leaders were left with enough plutonium in the form of spent reactor fuel to make about six nuclear weapons, after further processing. The deal being floated for Iran would leave it with sufficient enriched uranium to make about six nuclear weapons, after further processing.
Of course, North Korea did the processing and made the bombs. What we have to ask ourselves is this: Why won't Iran? Is there any reason to believe that this time the outcome would be different?
The mistake in the North Korea talks was not to insist from the outset that all nuclear fuel should be shipped out of the country, and all nuclear sites should be dismantled. The U.S. made a deal that lowered the diplomatic pressure on Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, but left the danger in place. North Korea got an agreement with the U.S. without giving up its ability to make nuclear weapons. It was in a position to restart the program at any time.
If Iran accepts the interim deal being floated this week, it will do even better. Iran will not have to stop producing nuclear fuel and will only have to cut its production back by a small percentage, while keeping enough to produce a small arsenal. Nor will it have to dismantle its production sites. Like North Korea, it will be able to restart production at any time.
The lesson from North Korea is that an interim agreement of this kind won't work. In addition to leaving too much fuel in place that can be enriched to weapons grade, the proposed agreement inevitably renders legitimate what it doesn't prohibit. If nuclear fuel, production or equipment is permitted, then it becomes Iran's right.
Once such a notion is accepted, the interim deal becomes the only one, because it dissipates the crisis atmosphere. The public starts thinking that things are safe, or at least safe enough, though they aren't. The effect is to diminish the support for sanctions that was so difficult to win, and to make it almost impossible to reinstate these measures once it becomes clear that Iran is not taking the next steps, which -- just as with North Korea -- it won't.
Before making any halfway deal, U.S. and European diplomats should insist that Iran remove itself from the path that North Korea so easily followed. If Iran wants to convince the world that it has no desire to acquire nuclear weapons, then it should be willing to give up the means to make them. When the talks resume this week, let's hope history isn't forgotten.
Originally published in Bloomberg View 2013. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.