Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea and Iran: Let the Comparisons Begin

North Korea's titular head of state Kim Yong Nam and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

by Paul R. Pillar

North Korea and Iran represent significantly different nuclear-related challenges. The biggest difference is that North Korea has nuclear weapons while Iran doesn’t and never has. If North Korea really were to become no longer a nuclear threat, as Donald Trump prematurely declared upon returning to Washington this week, this would mean Pyongyang dismantling an existing nuclear arsenal. With Iran, the task instead has been to close all possible pathways to development of an Iranian nuclear weapon and to ensure through comprehensive monitoring and inspection that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. Accomplishment of that task is what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, has been all about.

There are other possibly relevant differences, such as the nature of the two regimes. Iran has a popularly elected president and parliament and, notwithstanding the less democratic aspects of its political system, has real politics in which policies and ideologies are contested both openly and within the regime. By contrast, North Korea is a family-ruled thugocracy that currently is the most totalitarian state in the world.

It is difficult to assess the net effect of the internal political differences on nuclear diplomacy. Generally it is easier to strike a deal with a single dictator who calls all the shots than to bargain with representatives of a more divided regime with its own bureaucratic politics. Inducing a regime that possesses nuclear weapons to give up that arsenal, however, can pose a bigger challenge than ensuring that a non-nuclear-weapons state stays that way. A fair-minded observer who strips away the rhetoric and concentrates on the facts of each situation might be hesitant to use what has been done with Iran as a standard for assessing what is being done with North Korea, and vice versa.

But Trump, through his own rhetoric and that of others who have been intent on destroying the JCPOA, has forfeited any such benefit of the doubt. By repeatedly asserting that a “better deal” was possible with Iran and claiming superior prowess in striking deals with anyone about anything, Trump not only permits but invites comparisons between what he accomplishes on North Korea and what his predecessor accomplished on Iran. The many attacks that he and others have made on the JCPOA, regardless of how untrue or invalid those attacks have been, provide standards for assessing whatever Trump does with North Korea.

Initial Concessions

Fairness also requires recognition that any significant progress toward making North Korea no longer a nuclear threat will take a long time, with the meeting in Singapore at best only a single step in any such process. But it is not too soon to start making comparisons. Indeed, one of the most frequently voiced attacks against the JCPOA has concerned the up-front sequencing of events in which each side made or implemented its initial concessions. Trump’s own previous secretary of state joined in this attack when he asserted, “They [the Iranians] got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything.”

That assertion is false. The first concessions of any sort during the diplomatic process that led to the JCPOA came with an interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, reached in 2013 when the final agreement was still many months of hard negotiations away. Under this preliminary accord, Iran had to blend down or convert to oxide all the uranium it had enriched beyond five percent, take most of its enrichment centrifuges offline, admit international inspectors for continuous monitoring of its most important nuclear facilities, and take several other steps to restrict its program. The small concessions it got in return were removal of some sanctions on its auto industry and the ability to buy spare parts for its decrepit civilian airliner fleet. The sequence of implementation of the final JCPOA was heavily skewed against Iran, which had to dispose of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, fill a nuclear reactor with concrete, and take almost all the other significant steps it was required to take under the agreement to close any possible pathway to a bomb—and have this all certified by international inspectors—before it got an ounce of additional sanctions relief.

How does this compare with the picture of initial concessions in Trump’s dealings with North Korea? As many commentators have noted after the Singapore meeting, Pyongyang hasn’t conceded anything yet, let alone implemented a concession. In the short and sketchy joint statement, Kim Jong Un merely reaffirmed a vague commitment to denuclearization—however defined—that his regime had asserted many times before. The big up-front concession was by the United States. That concession was the meeting itself. Not only a meeting, but a meeting with all the flags and finery, the friendly pats and warm words, that went well beyond the bare minimum of summitry in symbolically bestowing legitimacy on Kim’s thugocracy. The meeting, and Kim’s treatment as an equal of the president of the United States, demonstrated the success of Kim’s strategy of using rapid development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as a key to getting attention and getting such treatment. The current pause in North Korea’s testing of weapons is not a concession. It is a mark of having arrived, and, as Kim himself has said, of his program’s success.

Note the contrast with the protocol aspects of negotiating the JCPOA. In the arduous diplomatic process that produced that agreement, the most intense interaction between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials consisted not of a cordial made-for-TV encounter but instead of shouting matches—during especially difficult points in the bargaining—behind

closed doors between the U.S. secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister. The closest thing to a summit meeting was a phone call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani while the latter was in a car on his way to the airport after participating in the United Nations General Assembly.

Non-Nuclear Issues

After the Singapore meeting, Trump revealed another U.S. concession. He promised—evidently to the surprise of both South Korea and his own Department of Defense—to end joint U.S.-South Korean war games. This was significant partly for being unmatched by anything equivalent from North Korea. What Trump stated was a promise by Kim to disable a missile testing site says no more about North Korea’s ability to continue to develop and test weapons than did an earlier staged-for-journalists explosion at a nuclear test site.

The concession about war games also is significant in going beyond nuclear weapons or nuclear-related sanctions, which leads to another interesting comparison with the JCPOA. The enemies of that agreement have repeatedly castigated it for not addressing non-nuclear issues, including what is routinely labeled as Iran’s “nefarious” international behavior. That castigation ignores how if each side had loaded up the agenda with its other grievances, the agenda would have become unworkable and no restriction on the Iranian nuclear program ever could have been negotiated. With a more expansive agenda, Iran surely would have included the issue of U.S. military activity in Iran’s backyard. Such inclusion would have been at least as legitimate as the inclusion of many other grievances by any of the parties, given a history that has included U.S. warships shooting down a civilian Iranian airliner and U.S. Navy craft more recently entering Iranian territorial waters. But non-nuclear issues were not included in the JCPOA negotiations, and—unlike what Trump said he just did—the United States made no concessions to Iran restricting any U.S. military activities, including those in Iran’s backyard.

Meanwhile, back in Singapore—and notwithstanding all that criticism of the JCPOA about not addressing other Iranian activity—the joint statement from Trump and Kim gives no hint of addressing non-nuclear North Korean activity, beyond a joint commitment to recover POW/MIA remains. Nothing is said about ballistic missiles (and North Korean missiles, unlike Iranian ones, can reach U.S. territory) or about North Korea’s overseas assassinations, kidnapping of Japanese citizens, counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and other current or recent past North Korean actions that would warrant the adjective nefarious.

So far, the comparison between the nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the current version with North Korea puts the former in a good light and makes the latter look disappointing. Those with an interest in curbing the dangers of proliferating nuclear weapons should hope that the North Korea picture will improve with time. But whether it does or not, the process has put into perspective how badly mistaken was the current administration’s trashing of the JCPOA.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Paul

    Look back at the time when Iran was not invaded by these Muslim fanatics. How reliable was Iran then? Did anyone distrust Iran’s nuclear program? Of course they did.

    So the problem is not the technical or legal framework. It is the political framework.

    I am not trying to take Iran back to those days. I am just saying that you cannot do any deals with Ayatollahs going forward. They do not care about Iran. They want their own agenda.

    Iran needs to have its sovereignty back. Once we get that we can do deals. Simple.

  2. Oops I meant, of course they didn’t distrust the old system. In fact to press the point, Iran became a very trusted signatory of NPT over 40 years ago. Iran’s nuclear scientists were well known and highly respected.

    The Iranian nation loves its nuclear industry. The trouble is that the Muslim fanatics have a religious-political agenda attached to it. They want to use Iranians’ love for nuclear industry to push through their theocracy.

    What I am saying is academic. One must not deal with them until we have a regime change with honourable Iranians in charge, not these fanatics.

  3. Although loath to admit it, by his actions and by his words, Trump has tacitly accepted North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Since the president does not engage in strategic planning, I doubt he was aware that he was painting himself into a corner.

    If North Korea is no longer a threat to the United States, why should it matter whether they have nuclear weapons or not? It will be hard to make the disarmament case now, particularly if North Korea’s leader just sits on what he has like a smug Cheshire Cat. Surely, this administration will not try to argue for denuclearization on international non-proliferation regime grounds. That would be laughable. If there is no threat, there is no argument that North Korea must disarm.

    Secretary Pompeo may scurry around for a while pursuing negotiations and making assertions about terms agreed to but never recorded in Singapore, but the fact is North Korea has no incentive to negotiate further. They may continue the negotiations farce but the outcome is already determined. Having pardoned Kim Jung Un, Trump opened the door to other states doing the same. The sanctions regime has been undercut; our allies, Japan and South Korea, have been set adrift; China will do as it wishes.

    The wisest policy now would be to recognize what we have unwittingly done and develop and articulate a policy of deterrence making clear what use of the weapons North Korea has would trigger what kind of U.S. response.

  4. The “task” with Iran was never to “foreclose all possible routes to nukes”; it has been to use the nuclear issue as a pretext for a policy of imposing regime change through yet another war, and then to find a face saving way to back down from that. Let’s not forget that Iran hand long ago been makin BETTER compromise offers than the current deal that the US ignored or outright killed-off including the Brazil Turkey negotiated deal in Obama fist admin, leading to the further expansion of Iran nuclear program that then had to be negotiated back down.

    Iran has the same right under Art X of the NPT to withdraw and make nukes if it wants but quite unlike NK Iran has long graciously accepted yet more restrictions in its nuclear program than the NPT requires, having suspended enrichment several times for many years, only to get cheated as in the EU3 deal. How many times has Iran been handed “alot of pretty wrapping around an empty box” now?

  5. “Thrice-bitten

    Despite this rejection, in 2003 Iran suspended its uranium enrichment programme and accepted a more stringent IAEA inspection regime, while it sought a more limited agreement on just the nuclear front.

    After two fruitless years, which produced only an EU offer to Iran that an EU diplomat described as “a lot of gift wrapping around a pretty empty box”, Iran resumed enrichment. Despite this second major rebuff, Iran took a new step in 2005. On 18 September 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN general assembly that Iran was “prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of the uranium enrichment programme in Iran.”

    In 2007, Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, reiterated this offer: all countries with concerns, “including the US”, could participate in a uranium enrichment consortium in Iran. Zarid added: “Their people and other foreign nationals could come and go to work at the facilities, which would allow for the best type of monitoring.”

    Former British ambassador sir John Thomson described the consortium idea in 2008 as “the best that is obtainable, and so long as it remains in force it precludes Iran from making a nuclear weapon”. Iran’s repeated public and private offers to place its uranium enrichment facilities under the control of an international consortium have all met with rejection.

    Furthermore, in 2008, Iran offered full co-operation with IAEA inspectors in clearing up lingering questions regarding its nuclear programme, through a “work plan”. All the major questions were answered, yet Iran’s considerable cooperation was treated as irrelevant.

    Iran is not blameless in this process. What is striking, however, is that each time Iran reaches out for compromise, the US (with British support) moves the goalposts, and cracks the whip.”
    – Milan Rai, “Wont take yes for an answer” –, June 2010

Comments are closed.