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North Korea, Iran, and a Congress That Says No

03/24/2015 02:28 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Negotiators are rushing to meet an end-of-March deadline to reach a nuclear framework deal with Iran. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are willing to lift economic sanctions as long as Iran agrees to substantially curb its nuclear program for at least 10 years. A few significant gaps -- notably on proposed caps on Iran's research and development activities, the duration of the agreement, and the speed with which sanctions will be lifted -- reportedly separate the two sides. But cautious optimism that a deal will be sealed surrounds the talks.

If indeed the deal survives the scrutiny of all the governments concerned, it will have an impact beyond the specific issue of nuclear proliferation. Washington and Tehran could use the agreement as a foundation for the gradual reestablishment of bilateral ties. Rumors abounded in November 2014 of secret meetings to discuss the possible opening of a U.S. trade office in Iran following a nuclear agreement.

A deal could also pave the way for greater regional cooperation (which is already underway informally in the fight against the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq and Syria). And a landmark accord would also signal Iran's reentry into the international community after several decades as a pariah state.

One of the main obstacles to this virtuous circle of diplomacy is the U.S. Congress. With the Republican Party now in charge of both chambers, congressional hardliners have done their best to undermine the Obama administration's efforts, from the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to the letter signed by 47 Republican senators to Iranian leaders to remind them that Congress or a new president can shoot down an agreement at any time.

Long-time Capitol Hill watchers should be struck with déjà vu at this point. The United States and North Korea were in a similar situation in 1994 when the Clinton administration was negotiating the Agreed Framework despite significant congressional skepticism. The challenge for the Obama administration is not only to secure an agreement with Iran -- with assistance and occasional pushback from European allies like France -- but to avoid the fate of the Agreed Framework. That accord failed to prepare for a breakthrough in bilateral relations or prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It has cast a long shadow over the current negotiations as well as other non-proliferation efforts.

Dealing With Pyongyang and Congress

The Agreed Framework averted a major crisis precipitated by North Korea's announced departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Negotiated over the summer of 1994, the deal froze North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for two light-water reactors, shipments of heavy fuel oil, and a pledge to pursue full political and economic normalization.

It was a major sign of rapprochement between the longest-running adversaries of the Cold War. Not only did the Agreed Framework prevent an imminent war, but it promised to open up a new era in U.S.-North Korean relations. Optimists hoped that the agreement would pave the way to solving some of the most persistent problems in the region, including the most challenging issue of all, the division of the Korean peninsula.

Even though the Clinton administration had to be dragged involuntarily to the negotiating table -- after Jimmy Carter's trip to Pyongyang at the height of the crisis produced the kernel of a compromise -- Bill Clinton was sufficiently invested in the agreement to push Congress to approve the funds necessary to build the light-water reactors and send the heavy fuel oil. Congressional hardliners, however, were skeptical about the whole process of engaging North Korea.

And then came the 1994 midterm elections. Bill Clinton had entered the White House with a Democratic Party majority in both the House and Senate. Two years later, in 1994, the Democrats lost control of both chambers. It was a devastating political reversal.

The 1994 elections effectively orphaned the Agreed Framework. For the next eight years Congress resisted adhering to the deal, not only rhetorically but where it counted most: in appropriations. First, it made the administration scramble to get the funds necessary to send the promised heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea, which often produced delays that angered Pyongyang. Second, Congress cut the money available for the construction of the two light-water reactors, helping to ensure that the project would never get much beyond a big hole in the ground.

In an atmosphere of growing mistrust -- not only between the United States and North Korea but between the Clinton administration and Congress -- the larger goals of political and economic normalization were forgotten. For its part, North Korea began a secret program to acquire a nuclear weapon through a second path, uranium enrichment.

The Clinton administration had sold the Agreed Framework to Congress by quietly assuring key members that North Korea would collapse before any light-water reactors could be built. And although North Korea didn't collapse, the Agreed Framework did.

Will this history of bungled rapprochement repeat with Iran? After all, Congress is again playing hardball and doing whatever it can to undercut any forthcoming agreement with Iran. As in 1994, congressional hawks both doubt the intentions of the adversary and simply want the administration to fail. The shift in political control of the House in 2014 may orphan any Iranian agreement just as the 1994 elections effectively doomed the Agreed Framework.

Hopeful Divergences

Fortunately, there are several important differences between the examples of Iran and North Korea.

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