WASHINGTON -- Since the U.S. and five partner countries announced last week that they had reached the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran, skeptics have rallied around a familiar argument: The failure to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons proves that Iran, too, will ultimately get the bomb.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vocal opponents of the current negotiations, said in a Sunday appearance on CNN that the U.S. made "the same arguments about North Korea -- it'll make them peaceful, it'll make them moderate, it'll make them abandon their program -– and the opposite has happened."
“No agreement is going to stop Iran. Agreements, and a lot of talk, did not stop North Korea,” wrote Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal the day before the framework deal was announced.
“North Korea proves, irrefutably, that the 'talks' model, absent credible measures of coercion or threat, won’t work,” Henninger concluded.
The critics are referring to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, which was negotiated between the U.S. and North Korea in 1994. Under the framework, North Korea agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for heavy fuel oil that could be burned for energy and funding for proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors.
But U.S. officials soon began to suspect the North Koreans of reneging on the agreement by pursuing covert uranium enrichment in cooperation with Pakistan. By January 2003, North Korea had abandoned the framework, left the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumed operation of its crippled nuclear facilities.
“Two decades ago, Bill Clinton promised his administration had taken ‘the first step on the road to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.’ Clinton was wrong. So is Obama,” wrote Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, on Monday.
But former Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who served as the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks that produced the Agreed Framework, doesn't think the deal was a failure. In fact, he says the North Korea precedent shows why the current talks with Iran are so important.
“The standard is: Can a deal be negotiated which advances national security interests of the United States and its allies?” Gallucci told reporters at a recent press breakfast hosted by 38 North, a website that focuses on analysis of North Korea.
There's evidence to show that the Agreed Framework met this standard. In 1993, North Korea was believed to have the ability to produce one to two nuclear weapons, and intelligence estimates predicted it would be capable of making 75-100 weapons within a decade. But the deal negotiated by Gallucci’s team the following year brought the country's nuclear weapons development to a halt, at least for the time being.
A recent report by nuclear expert David Albright estimates that North Korea currently has the ability to produce between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons, and projects that it will not be able to produce 100 weapons until at least 2020. This means that the supposedly failed 1994 framework likely set back North Korea's nuclear weapons development by 17 years, if not more.
Gallucci argues that those who point to the duplicity of the Iranian government are missing the purpose of negotiating.
“There’s usually the phrase, ‘you can’t trust Iran, just like you couldn’t trust North Korea.’ Well, trust doesn’t figure into the calculation in my view of these kinds of negotiations," he said.
"You craft agreements so that there is sufficient transparency to allow you to monitor and then ultimately verify compliance with the deal," Gallucci continued.
The former negotiator emphasized the importance of comprehensive inspections under any nuclear agreement.
“When you are assessing whether a deal is worthwhile, whether it’s good from the perspective of the U.S. and its allies," he said, "you must look at the provisions for verification and see whether you can monitor and ultimately verify compliance.”
The compliance safeguards described in the framework deal with Iran include inspections that are far more invasive than the ones North Korea was subject to in the 1990s.
According to Robert Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert and former State Department official, one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Agreed Framework was that it had limited inspections provisions. “It only provided for IAEA monitoring at their nuclear facility at Yongbyon,” he said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “It did not provide for monitoring in the rest of the country because that was the only declared site. Sure enough, the uranium enrichment program took place outside of Yongbyon.”
On the other hand, the final deal with Iran will require the country to permanently abide by the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an addendum that the IAEA drafted partially as a response to the failure of pre-existing safeguards in the North Korean case. The Additional Protocol, which allows nuclear inspectors access to suspected undeclared nuclear sites, was designed to prevent states from conducting nuclear activity in secrecy.
A recent post on the Lawfare blog pointed out that Iran will implement the Additional Protocol on a voluntary basis at first, and eventually move to ratify the document, ultimately making the requirements legally binding.
Einhorn noted another difference between the Agreed Framework and the deal currently being negotiated with Iran: While the 1994 agreement froze North Korea’s plutonium production activity, it did not explicitly prohibit uranium enrichment.
“Some Americans believe the North Koreans should have known we considered the Agreed Framework to cover uranium enrichment. But we should have known that if the North Koreans have not explicitly agreed to it, they did not consider themselves bound,” Einhorn explained.
“In contrast,” he continued, “the Iran agreement explicitly covers all four pathways to a bomb.”
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