The Best Wrong Way to Implement a Nuke Deal
As the real work of the Iran nuke deal begins, we should bear in mind the lessons of the failed North Korea nuke deal. I should know — I was there.
While the debate over the landmark Iran nuclear deal will grow even more rancorous as the U.S. Congress rakes it over the coals, the real work won’t really start until afterwards: when we begin the long, arduous process of putting the agreement into practice.
Twenty years ago, my bosses at the State Department tasked me with implementing an equally controversial Rubik’s cube-esque nuclear deal between the United States and North Korea. I didn’t understand then how difficult the job would be; and looking back, I see how many of the lessons I learned then could help whoever is asked to implement the Iran deal.
After a simmering crisis over Pyongyang’s weapons program almost triggered a second Korean War in June 1994, we reached the North Korea agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, which was seen by former President Bill Clinton’s administration as a significant foreign-policy achievement. Like the Iran deal, it too involved a nuclear agreement with a recalcitrant rogue state — the denuclearization of the North in exchange for large-scale energy assistance, including two modern nuclear reactors. Also involved were a sometimes contentious American partner, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a hostile Congress. The deal eventually collapsed but not before staving off our worst nightmare: a North Korea capable of producing enough fissile material for 75 bombs by the early 2000s. Instead, it barely had enough material for five bombs when the collapse came in January 2003. Pyongyang’s bomb production program is only now getting back on its feet with experts projecting that it will produce anywhere from 20 to 100 weapons by 2020.
Without question, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program — as it’s formally known — is in our national interest. On its merits alone, the deal will head off the near-term threat of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. But even more important is, as U.S. President Barack Obama said in commentary following his American University speech, that the United States underestimates “our power when we restrict it to just our military power.” Diplomacy can serve American interests.
While the JCPOA is in our national interest, its success will require rigorous attention to implementation. The JCPOA is, to its credit, a far more detailed agreement. Coming in at a hefty 159 pages of provisions, clauses, sub-provisions and sub-clauses, the JCPOA edges out many uncertainties about what needs to be done. That’s versus the four-page Agreed Framework that was essentially a phased roadmap with tasks for both countries to perform every step of the way. The JCPOA’s complexity, however, covering a much wider scope of activities than the North Korea agreement — such as extensive on-site inspections and restrictions on Iranian procurement activities — will create added challenges, making it all the more important that we understand the past. As we gear up for the long implementation process, here are some of the hard lessons I learned from my experience.
Organize for success
A nuclear deal with a rogue state should not be treated as “business as usual.” Organizing for success means appointing a senior implementation czar (or should I say shah?) to lead the charge, something we didn’t have until four years into the North Korea deal. That person should have access to the secretary of state and the president, engage with the Iranian leadership, work closely with other involved countries and the IAEA, charged with inspections, and manage relations with a hostile Congress. This czar also needs a “war room,” particularly as implementation starts to take off, stocked with representatives from the White House, State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and the intelligence community, to monitor developments and react quickly.
In the Agreed Framework, we established a new international organization known as the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization to handle key implementation tasks. Despite employing a permanent staff, its work was difficult, time-consuming, and unpredictable. The Iran deal provides for a less elaborate organizational approach, in the form of a Joint Commission — essentially a committee that will meet periodically. That’s a good start, but we should take added precautions. For example, the Joint Commission should meet continuously until the first deadline in the agreement (“Implementation Day”) to ensure work moves forward and to serve as a multilateral focal point for problem solving. Depending on how implementation proceeds in this initial phase, the partners may also want to consider further adjustments to strengthen the commission’s performance over the long haul and make sure it has access to the expertise and resources it will need.
Hit the ground running, not stumbling
Less obvious but almost as important will be dealing effectively with seemingly mundane “implementing agreements” covering the legal, logistical, and technical “nuts and “bolts” necessary to get joint projects off the ground. Big deals sometimes falter because of equally big problems. But it’s also possible to “die a death by a thousand cuts.” Implementation can go south even when seemingly small things are overlooked or ignored.
With the North Korea agreement, we managed to close the big deal but then got bogged down negotiating a series of small technical, legal, and logistical implementing agreements with Pyongyang and our allies. For example, the United States agreed to deliver 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil every year to the North. But then we had to negotiate not only a schedule for deliveries but also the technical specifications for the type of fuel oil with the North Koreans and then contract a private company to provide it. As a result, we hit the ground stumbling over the minutia of this secondary agreement instead of running.
Avoiding the Iran deal’s myriad “small” landmines will be essential. While it establishes a multilateral working group and technical provisions for preventing the Arak heavy water reactor from producing plutonium that could be used to build a nuclear bomb, the partners will still face the difficult task of producing a document that defines their different near-term responsibilities. Other potential flashpoints are the project to convert the Fordow enrichment facility into a nuclear, physics, and technology center, which will likely be a joint effort between Russia and Iran, and Iran’s shipment of excess low-enriched uranium out of the country as mandated by the agreement. The partners will have to closely monitor progress in making these arrangements and be prepared to react quickly if talks begin to bog down in the detailed minutia.
Keep your friends close…
Dealing with your friends can sometimes be as dicey as dealing with your foes. But the former will be essential if we’re to keep Iran’s feet to the fire. Implementation of the Agreed Framework was slow, not just because of problems with the North Koreans but also because it was sometimes hard to reach consensus with our two main partners, South Korea and Japan, over a raft of issues, particularly the financial, technical, and other details of jumpstarting the agreement’s multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor project. Today’s challenge will be even greater, given Washington’s testy relationships with Beijing and Moscow.
First, successful diplomacy will require extending past close cooperation with our European friends on negotiating strategy to new implementation challenges, such as the lifting of sanctions, dealing with potential compliance problems, and resolving disputes. Second, we can’t ignore the other players. One key task will be working with Russia and China to make sure their companies respect restrictions in the agreement on “dual-use” technology for civilian or military purposes that could, for example, contribute to producing enriched uranium or plutonium.
And your enemies closer
The Iran deal does the Agreed Framework one better. It not only gives us positive leverage over Tehran, since it has to enact the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear program in order to secure the agreement’s economic and other benefits, but it also establishes a mechanism for addressing any potential cheating and snapback provisions for sanctions in the event of a major violations — something we didn’t have in the Agreed Framework.
History tells us that well-conceived contingency plans for dealing with violations are essential. The plans themselves may amount to nothing, but planning is everything, to paraphrase former President Dwight Eisenhower. The Agreed Framework collapsed because former President George W. Bush’s administration was caught flat-footed by Pyongyang’s development of a uranium enrichment program for producing bombs in violation of the Agreed Framework. (U.S. intelligence had detected suspicious activities in 1998, and the Clinton administration warned its successor of the potential danger in 2001.) When Pyongyang withdrew from the agreement and restarted its nuclear program in early 2003 after being accused by Washington of cheating on its commitments, all the administration could do was sulk and revert back to talks.
Most importantly, the North Korea experience teaches us that technical agreements built on political quicksand can be tenuous. The Agreed Framework suffered because we couldn’t insulate its implementation from the lingering Cold War hostility on the Korean Peninsula, failing to recognize the critical importance of improving U.S.-DPRK relations. When we reached a crisis in 1998, in part because of Pyongyang’s first long-range rocket test, which did not violate the agreement but called into question its true intentions, it became clear that improving political relations was essential to saving the framework. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started that process by traveling to Pyongyang. And President Clinton considered going there, a bold step that would have propelled the two countries further down that road, building a firmer foundation for implementation. But time ran out on his administration.
In short, without establishing stronger ties beyond the narrow confines of the Iran agreement, a lethal combination of violations and political hostility could undermine implementation and even result in its collapse, just like it did with North Korea.
It ain’t over until it’s over
The Iran deal may turn out to be the foreign-policy equivalent of Obamacare, with opponents seeking to destroy it even after losing the congressional debate. In the case of North Korea, Republicans in Congress continued to undercut our leadership by limiting U.S. funding for its implementation. When they won back the White House in 2000, Republican neoconservatives in the new administration seized on North Korea’s breaching the agreement to “shatter” the Agreed Framework by presenting Pyongyang with an ultimatum — we aren’t going to talk to you anymore until you come clean.
That possibility exists today, particularly with a presidential campaign underway in which Republican candidates will try to outdo each other to condemn the deal. Mike Huckabee’s risible comment about leading Jews to the “oven door” is only the opening salvo. The nakedly partisan nature of the attacks may shore up Democratic support for the agreement, while our multilateral partners will oppose any politically driven moves to undermine it.
Still, we should take steps to further erode the opposition’s support. One possibility would be to take a page out of the Cold War arms control experience by creating a bipartisan “Iran Observer Group,” made up of members of Congress who would be briefed regularly on implementation, engage in candid and confidential exchanges of ideas and information with government officials, and meet informally with other parties, including the Iranians. The group’s effectiveness may be limited, however, by the sharp partisan divide in Congress today, a divide that didn’t exist during the final years of the Cold War.
Implementation of a nuclear deal with a rogue state is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. That was certainly the case with the Agreed Framework, but unfortunately we didn’t have past lessons to learn from. Today, it’s a different story. But unless those pitfalls are clearly understood, the chances for success are likely to dramatically decline.