Commentary Magazine


re: Why the Secrecy on the Iran Deal?

Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

 (1)   Do they really believe that North Korea has ceased being a backlash state and should therefore be trusted?

(2)   Why did Kim Jong-il do the deal now?

(3)   Won’t it serve as an incentive for other backlashers to pursue nuclear-weapons programs, to get bought off by the United States if for no other reason?

Clinton refused to answer such questions but, by 1997, there was little doubt that the Agreed Framework had failed. The State Department would not accept such findings, though, even when they came from the intelligence community. To do so would invalidate Clinton’s approach. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman (and an avid supporter of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran) declared, “We are absolutely confident … that the agreed framework, put in place two and a half years ago is in place, it’s working. We are absolutely clear that North Korea’s nuclear program has been frozen and will remain frozen.”

When they looked at the facts, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded otherwise. In 1999, it reported that it could no longer verify how North Korea distributed or used its food aid. North Korea would allow international monitors to visit only 10 percent of institutions receiving food aid, and regularly blocked inspectors. The State Department refused to accept the GAO findings, though, because to accept them would be to admit North Korean cheating and to undermine the premise of the diplomatic process in which they had already invested too much. Likewise, when the GAO reported that monitoring of heavy fuel oil had gone awry, the State Department informed Congress that they trusted that the regime’s use of the heavy fuel oil was consistent with the Agreed Framework. Like today, Congress was dubious, but the State Department effectively covered up North Korean noncompliance and insisted that the deal was “a concrete success.”

A theme of my book is that the State Department never conducts lessons-learned episodes to determine why certain high-profile diplomatic engagements have failed in order to better execute diplomacy in the future. Perhaps that’s unfair, however. It seems that the State Department has considered what went wrong 15 years ago but, rather than conclude that the original agreement or rogue behavior was the problem, they have determined that too much transparency forces them to answer uncomfortable questions and can empower Congress to demand accountability. That, more than rogue regime cheating, seems to be the State Department’s greatest concern. Simply put, a secret agreement is necessary, in diplomats’ eyes, in order to ensure that cheating, violations, and insincerity don’t sidetrack the continuation of the diplomatic process.

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