Is Iran more like North Korea or Libya? That is the question politicians and the public must ask themselves as they consider President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal.
Libya is the shining success story of negotiated disarmament — one of the very few. On Dec. 19, 2003, following nine months of secret talks with the United States and Britain, Muammar Gadhafi agreed to give up his entire arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The component parts were to be either destroyed or shipped abroad.
Only a few months later, American officials were able to display at Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear equipment taken from Libya. Tons of chemical weapons and weapons precursors were destroyed. Gadhafi even turned over to the U.S. for “safekeeping” five Scud-C missiles as part of his pledge to get rid of any missiles with a range longer than 300 kilometers. Earlier, Gadhafi had renounced terrorism and agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The experience with North Korea was very different. In 1994, after threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Pyongyang signed the Agreed Framework pledging to freeze the construction and operation of its plutonium reactors. In return, the United States agreed to provide it with substantial aid, including fuel oil deliveries and help in constructing two light-water reactors that could be used for nuclear energy but not nuclear weapons. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, were supposed to monitor compliance.
The U.S. duly provided North Korea with $1.3 billion in food and energy assistance. In 2001, ground was broken on the first of the light-water reactors. Although it was not tied to the Agreed Framework, North Korea received even more largesse from South Korea, which, under its “sunshine policy,” delivered $8 billion in economic assistance from 1996 to 2008.
We now know, however, that North Korea never had any intention of abiding by its commitments. Before and after signing the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang was secretly enriching uranium. In 2002, North Korean officials brazenly admitted as much to a visiting American delegation.
The admission sparked a crisis. The U.S. suspended oil shipments and ended its construction work on the light-water reactor. North Korea left the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. To bring it back into compliance, the George W. Bush administration launched six-party talks with Pyongyang. As a sweetener, the U.S. even agreed to unfreeze a North Korean bank account in Macao (2006) and to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (2008).
That effort failed. North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Recent reports from China suggest that North Korea may have as many as 20 nuclear warheads, and U.S. military officials suspect that North Korea is close to being able to place those warheads on long-range ballistic missiles that could hit the West Coast of the United States.
So is the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, closer to the agreements with North Korea or Libya?
Though Iran has agreed to reduce the number of operational centrifuges from 9,500 to 6,000, to shrink the amount of low-enriched uranium in its possession from 10,000 kilograms to 300, and to make changes at several facilities to prevent them from being used to create nuclear weapons, all of these steps are reversible. Iran is not destroying its nuclear weapons infrastructure as Gadhafi did. Nor is it giving up ballistic missiles, renouncing terrorism or making restitution for past attacks. It is only freezing its nuclear program, as North Korea did.
Monitoring Iran’s compliance will require on-site IEAE inspections. Obama’s deal has more intrusive inspections procedures than the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but that doesn’t mean the procedures are sufficient. There will be continuous monitoring of a few declared nuclear sites, but Iran will be able to delay inspections of disputed facilities for at least 24 days, which would give it time to sanitize a site.
The larger problem is that, like North Korea, Iran is a big country: If the government wants to hide something, it will likely succeed. Compliance depends on voluntary cooperation. Perhaps Iran will cooperate, but so far, it has not come clean with the IAEA about 12 existing “areas of concern” regarding the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program.
That is not a good sign. It suggests that Iran, like North Korea (or, for that matter, Iraq during the 1990s), is likely to play a game of cat-and-mouse with inspectors — and that if it does cheat, as North Korea did, the world will again discover it is too late to do anything about it.
When the Agreed Framework unraveled, the U.S. cut off some benefits to North Korea while offering fresh incentives for cooperation. South Korea continued to bankroll North Korea until a more conservative government took office in Seoul. Military action wasn’t a serious option because war would have been too destructive.
The U.S. won’t have any more leverage to compel Iranian compliance than it has had with North Korea. Iran will most likely reap the lion’s share of economic benefits — gaining access to more than $100 billion in frozen oil funds — in the next six months. That windfall couldn’t be revoked. And military action against Iran would become increasingly risky once the embargo on selling conventional weapons and ballistic missiles to Tehran is lifted.
Of course, none of this may matter because of a significant difference that makes the Iran deal even more generous than the one reached with North Korea. The Agreed Framework didn’t have an expiration date. The Iran deal does. Even if Iran fully complies with its terms, the agreement will expire in 10 to 15 years, and Iran will be left a nuclear threshold state.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relation.