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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Does The Road To Korean Denuclearization Run Through Tehran?

Hardliners at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are working overtime to convince the Trump administration to "fix" the nuclear agreement with Iran on the pretext that it will give the US leverage in negotiations with North Korea.

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The March 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed by Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg that seeks to make trouble for Iran by exploiting President Donald Trump’s decision to meet North Korea’s supreme leader in May.

Dubowitz and Goldberg have two aims.

The first is to insinuate that Iran, like North Korea, wants to acquire nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The second is to persuade the Trump White House that the United States must close down in perpetuity uranium enrichment, spent-fuel reprocessing, and medium/long range missile development in Iran in order to achieve the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, medium- and long-range missiles, and supporting programs.

Does Iran Share North Korean Nuclear and ICBM goals?

Since 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has been that Iran gave up nuclear weapon research in 2003 and has not taken a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. No NIE has suggested that prior to 2003 Iran built a prototype nuclear weapon, still less tested one.

Highly intrusive safeguarding of Iran’s nuclear program between 2003 and 2006, and since 2015 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—as well as less intrusive safeguarding between 2006 and 2015—has turned up no evidence of the diversion of nuclear material from legitimate peaceful uses.

Iran, unlike North Korea (and Israel), is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and has pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons.

An October 30, 2017 assessment by the Stockholm international Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI) included the following points:

  • Of the 31 countries that currently possess ballistic missile capabilities only nine are nuclear-armed. Iran is not one of them.
  • Iran views its missile capabilities as a counter to the military capabilities of regional rivals, and as a deterrent.
  • Iran’s longest-reaching ballistic missiles have a range of 1,600 kilometres (i.e. are not intercontinental).
  • Iran’s focus for the past decade has been on enhancing the accuracy, not the range, of its ballistic missiles.
  • The focus on accuracy supports Iran’s contention that its ballistic missiles are designed to carry conventional, not nuclear, payloads.
  • There is no evidence that Iran is developing ICBMs.

Can Iran Be a Source of Leverage for President Trump?

 This part of the Dubowitz/Goldberg thesis rests on an over-estimate of US leverage and a misinterpretation of both the North Korean and the Iranian nuclear negotiating histories.

Dubowitz and Goldberg portray North Korea as having gotten the better of recent US presidents because these have been weak and irresolute. This is, forgive the bluntness, nonsense. The reality is that North Korea has been able to withstand US pressure to “denuclearize the Korean peninsula” because it has long had up its sleeve the only ace in the game. The United States cannot use force to impose its will on Pyongyang because using force would almost certainly trigger a massive North Korean attack on South Korea, and no South Korean president has ever thought the lives of countless South Koreans a price worth paying for denuclearization. Add to that the possibility that China would react badly to such a US use of force, possibly with consequences for US allies such as Taiwan and Japan.

In other words, it matters not whether President Trump acquires an Iranian card before sitting down to negotiate with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Whether or not he succeeds in “fixing” the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran prior to a negotiation, as Dubowitz and Goldberg urge, is irrelevant. When the game gets under way Chairman Kim, knowing that he holds the only ace, will play as other North Korean negotiators have played over the last two decades, conceding points that he can afford to concede and standing firm where he feels he must.

That said, and putting the lack of relevance to one side, let us very briefly look at the proposition that President Trump can fix the July 2015 deal if he chooses.

That too is nonsense. Iran is set against any revision of the deal, and the nuclear negotiating history between 2003 and 2015 suggests that neither the United States alone nor the United States plus Europe ever had enough negotiating leverage to impose their will on Iran.

When an agreement finally emerged in July 2015, it suited President Barack Obama and European leaders to claim that it was the fruit of the sanctions they had imposed on Iran. But that claim reflected, and still reflects, a misunderstanding of Iranian motives. Iran offered Europe the embryo of the July 2015 agreement in March 2005, well before the first sanctions were applied. Iran resurrected that embryo in August 2013 not because of sanctions but because, during secret talks in Oman, the United States had conceded Iranian retention of a uranium-enrichment capability.

If the United States and Europe lacked the muscle to impose their will in the past, what reason is there to think they have it now? None. If anything their hand is weaker now than between 2003 and 2015 because Iran’s is stronger. Iran has occupied the moral and international political high ground by conceding an inspection regime designed to allay global concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions, by conceding restrictions on its nuclear activities while the IAEA does its job, and, unlike the United States, by fulfilling its commitments under the July 2015 agreement. Iran has developed a geostrategic relationship with Russia based on common interests in the Middle East, especially Syria. And it has rebalanced its trade towards Asian partners, such as China, who are unlikely to submit to US pressure to impose illegal sanctions.

So, Dubowitz and Goldberg are wrong on both counts. A “fixed” Iran nuclear agreement would not provide any game-changing leverage in negotiations with North Korea. Nor has Trump the leverage to impose a revision of the July 2015 agreement on Iran. If the Trump administration embraces such false assumptions, it will be made to lose face by Iran without improving its chances with North Korea.

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