September 5, 2017 | The Weekly Standard
The crisis between the United States and North Korea shows no signs of abating. Indeed, Pyongyang escalated its provocations last week, firing a missile over Japan on August 29. Critics of the president cite his brash approach to Pyongyang as a factor behind North Korea’s belligerency. Some also link Trump’s tough talk about the Iran nuclear deal. Why, they ask, would North Korea want to cooperate with a White House that insists on revisiting a nuclear deal the United States struck with Iran just two years ago?
What they fail to note is the Kim regime has already violated two nuclear deals with the United States. North Korea, in fact, authored the playbook now being used by Iran to fleece the United States and our allies. And if the United States fails to neutralize the North Korean threat, Iran will notice how the United States buckles in the face of nuclear pressure.
Iran has already learned a number of damaging lessons from North Korea. First, cheating on nuclear deals is permitted. North Korea cheated twice, and we kept coming back for more. President Bill Clinton announced the 1994 Agreed Framework as a deal that would “freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program,” but Pyongyang violated the agreement when it started a covert uranium enrichment program. Washington tried another nuclear deal with the Kim regime, negotiating the 2005 Joint Statement, but the Kim regime built a nuclear reactor in Syria during the negotiations. The reactor was eventually destroyed by Israel in 2007. Normally that would have ended negotiations, proving that North Korea was not a serious interlocutor. Instead, the Kim regime was rewarded for its nuclear proliferation when the Bush administration removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2008.
Iran’s cheating has focused on testing the will of the United States and its partners to hold Tehran to the negotiated limits in the 2015 nuclear deal. During the Obama administration, Tehran twice exceeded the cap on heavy water, and rather than punishing Iran, Washington and Moscow purchased the excess material from Iran. Iran is operating advanced centrifuges in excess of the limit of 10 it agreed to in the deal. And reports suggest the United Kingdom blocked an attempt by Iran to secretly purchase additional natural uranium. German intelligence reports showed that Iran attempted procurement of nuclear-related items, likely in violation of the agreement.
Second, limited nuclear deals can be exploited. The Agreed Framework and Joint Statement merely froze the North Korean nuclear programs (what was known of them), and in both instances Pyongyang was not required to dismantle its programs upfront. The result left North Korea with the infrastructure to produce fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for the nuclear weapons that now threaten America’s allies and the U.S. homeland.
Tehran adopted this very strategy when it negotiated a nuclear deal that allows it to keep its uranium enrichment program and continue research on advanced centrifuges. Iran can thus comply with the deal and emerge about a decade later with a production-scale enrichment facility and near-zero breakout time to develop nuclear weapons.
Third, you can also push the envelope on military and non-nuclear issues. North Korea tested a space launch vehicle (SLV) only four years after negotiating the 1994 Agreed Framework. Pyongyang has tested additional SLVs five times since 1998, placing satellites in orbit in 2012 and 2016. These SLVs provided key advancements Pyongyang used to improve intercontinental ballistic missiles that the Kim regime can use to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. North Korea has also tested the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which can reach Guam, at least five times this year, with a successful test in mid-May and again last week. The international community’s failure to respond meaningfully is viewed by North Korea as tacit approval.
Since the 2015 nuclear deal was signed, Tehran has reportedly conducted two SLV launches. It has launched as many as 14 ballistic missiles, many of which are “nuclear capable,” in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the nuclear deal. Iran has undoubtedly noticed the U.N.’s lack of a firm response.
The number of Iranian violations detailed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in a recent report is stunning. Two Iranian attempts to procure missile components, aircraft parts, and anti-tank missile components from Ukraine were thwarted over a period of just six months. How many others have gotten through? Iran also continues its shipment of arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, in violation of two Security Council resolutions.
Finally, insist that your military sites are off-limits. The first nuclear crisis in the mid-1990s started in part when North Korea refused a request by the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect a waste facility that Pyongyang said was a military site unrelated to its nuclear program. The Kim regime’s refusal set off a crisis that almost ended in a military conflict between the United States and North Korea. The crisis was resolved when the Clinton administration negotiated the ill-fated Agreed Framework.
Tehran has learned from the North Korean experience to insist that military facilities are off-limits and hope the issue fades away. Before the 2015 nuclear deal was completed, Iran’s supreme leader declared “inspection of our military sites is out of the question and is one of our red lines.” Iran’s foreign minister boasted that he had maintained the red line in negotiations. Tehran has allowed only a cursory inspection of the Parchin military site where undeclared uranium particles were discovered, and the regime continues to deny more intrusive inspections.
While Iran has learned many lessons from North Korea, Washington should have learned a few, too. The most significant is that flawed, limited nuclear deals do not solve the strategic issues. The Trump administration must internalize this lesson if it is to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, which could in turn set off an arms race in the Middle East. Similarly, with North Korea, the president should insist on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The “echo chamber” supporting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal wants President Trump to believe that North Korea’s aggressive nuclear weapons and missile programs somehow demonstrate the need for Washington to remain committed to the agreement. They have it exactly wrong. Pyongyang’s path highlights how a limited nuclear deal can lead to a nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. Another such threat, this time from Iran, could be only a matter of time.
Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was the non-proliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him @_ARuggiero.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.