David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington and a member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility national security task force. His most recent book is Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Is the forthcoming nuclear agreement with Iran similar to the earlier, unsuccessful one with North Korea? There are in fact some similarities between Iran and North Korea, notably the fact that both countries have followed policies inimical to the interests of the US. However, there are also huge differences between Iran and North Korea, and equally immense differences between the proposed Iran Nuclear Agreement (INA henceforth) and the earlier 1994 arrangement with North Korea, formally known as the Agreed Framework (AF). Following are some key distinctions between the AF and the INA.
1. Verification procedures and techniques that existed in 1994 when the AF was agreed have been greatly augmented in the intervening two decades, such that the INA constitutes a much more verifiable arrangement, including all possible supply chain routes. Although not perfect, the INA with Iran is the most reliable nuclear agreement ever reached between any two countries. (The details of verification within the INA have been extensively discussed elsewhere, and will not be repeated here.) Especially worth noting, however: the AF with North Korea specified very little in the way of actual verification procedures; by contrast, the overwhelming probability is that under the INA, any cheating on the part of Iran would be detected.
2. As far as can be determined from non-classified sources, the US did not possess any significant human intelligence assets in North Korea; hence we were limited in our ability to assess possible North Korean treaty violations. By contrast, human intelligence sources within Iran – whether reporting to the US or Israel – provided warning in 2002 that Iran was conducting undeclared nuclear activities in Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak. Human “intel,” in addition to satellite and other forms of surveillance, is available with regard to Iran.
3. When the AF was established, North Korea already had enough fissile material – in their case, plutonium – for at least one bomb and perhaps more. By contrast, Iran does not currently have enough fissile material – highly enriched uranium – for even one nuclear weapon. Therefore, under the INA, Iran cannot weaponize its current stockpile, even if could somehow evade the INA’s verification procedures; North Korea was able to do this.
4. The AF explicitly prohibited plutonium separation as a possible route for North Korea to make bombs, but it did not include direct prohibitions on uranium enrichment. The North Koreans then proceeded to import uranium enrichment technology (from Pakistan). By contrast, the INA outlaws all routes to nuclear explosives, both uranium enrichment – which Iran has developed thus far, using high-speed centrifuges – and plutonium separation, which it has not thus far attempted, and which, under the INA, it will not be able to do.
5. The AF was remarkably brief (just four pages!), and therefore left many details open to diverse interpretations and hence, unresolved disagreements. By contrast, the INA contains detailed procedures not only for verification, but also for dispute resolution and clear consequences for noncompliance on the part of Iran.
6. The AF was a bilateral US-North Korean understanding. No other countries participated. By contrast, the INA involves Iran and the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany. In addition, it has been codified as part of a UN Security Council resolution, which is important because Iranian noncompliance would be subject not only to a response by the US, but by the international community, with a multilateral military consequence thereby potentiated.
7. The AF called for eventual “full normalization” of relations between the US and North Korea; although normalization would have been a desirable outcome, many other (non-nuclear) impediments arose, which in turn provided both countries with occasions for finger-pointing, accusations and blame. By contrast, the Iranian leadership has disavowed full normalization of relations with the US as part of the INA, providing a much clearer focus for monitoring the agreement itself, relatively unimpeded by peripheral issues.
8. North Korea constitutes a substantial conventional threat to South Korea, since Seoul is within range of substantial North Korean artillery forces. Hence, a military response to noncompliance with the AF was unlikely – something the North Korean leadership well knew. By contrast, Iran has very limited ability to project military power; it does not comprise an immediate conventional threat, even to Israel, which enjoys a huge military advantage over the largely obsolescent Iranian forces. This is not to say that a military attack on Iran would be advisable, but it is much more likely – in the event of Iranian cheating – than it was against North Korea. And the Iranian leadership certainly knows this.
9. In the case of the AF, North Korea’s immediate antagonists (South Korea and Japan) were and still are under the US “nuclear umbrella.” Hence, neither of these rivals were liable to “go nuclear” in the event of North Korean noncompliance – and neither did. By contrast, Iran is acutely aware of its ongoing competition with other gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. If Iran were to defy the INA and seek to obtain its own nuclear weapons, this would almost certainly induce its Sunni rival states to go nuclear as well, an outcome Iran is unlikely to welcome.
10. The North Korean regime has long worried about military pressure from other countries, notably South Korea, the US and Japan, even possibly from China. Hence, it decided that a small nuclear arsenal was necessary for regime survival. By contrast, although Iran is definitely a troublemaker in its region, it is also the most populous nation, and is not threatened by any of its neighbors. Hence, it has nothing like the motivation to abrogate the INA that induced the North Korea to do so. In short, unlike the case of North Korea, the Iranian regime does not feel that it needs nuclear weapons to insure its survival.
11. North Korea was and still is the most isolated country in the world; hence, the consequences of undoing the AF were comparatively trivial; it lost little in the process. By contrast, Iran has a youthful population, much enamored of the West, along with numerous and influential economic stakeholders, all of whom would be seriously discomfited by a resumption of economic, social and political sanctions, which would result from their abandoning the INA, or cheating and being discovered.
12. North Korea was and still is a dictatorship, whose leadership felt free to do as it pleased with the AF; they were not concerned about any popular unrest caused by their decisions. By contrast, although Iran definitely isn’t a liberal democracy in the Western sense, its government was freely and popularly elected, and in Iran, public opinion is meaningful. Moreover, the Iranian public very much favors greater integration with the West, not less.
It has often been claimed that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But it is also noteworthy that those who misread history – as by identifying parallels that are illusory or deeply misleading – are doomed to serious error, as in this case: failing to take advantage of an immensely favorable opportunity.