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North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

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