Best Defense

To start talks with North Korea, look to the Iran deal — but don’t hold your breath

It is tempting to want to think that the Iran nuclear agreement could offer a similar path forward with North Korea. But the two cases are so different that it's difficult to compare them.



By Suzanne DiMaggio
Best Defense guest columnist

As North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its third report assessing the status of the nuclear deal that the United States and five other world powers reached with Iran over a year ago. Although it received scant attention, the report confirmed that the landmark deal is working — Iran continues to be in full compliance with the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is tempting to want to think that the Iran nuclear agreement could offer a similar path forward with North Korea. But the two cases are so different that it’s difficult to compare them. The most obvious and important difference is that North Korea has crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, while Iran has never possessed a nuclear weapon. Beyond this, differences abound in the two countries’ systems of government, economies, demographics, and so forth. As an American who has had the rare opportunity to travel to both countries over the years, I have experienced these differences firsthand.

It is clear the applicability of the JCPOA as a model is limited at best. Nonetheless, the process of diplomacy that the U.S. pursued with Iran could offer some insights on how to begin engagement with a long-standing adversary with leadership that is extremely distrustful of the United States, and vice versa.

Following several years spent on the build-up of an international sanctions coalition against Iran’s nuclear program, in 2012 President Barack Obama authorized U.S. officials to participate in discreet diplomatic exchanges with their Iranian counterparts. Through these discussions, the Americans conveyed a turn away from “regime change” in Iran as a strategic objective. While making clear that the U.S. government was not prepared to accept a nuclear weapons capable Iran under any circumstances, the U.S. communicated that it was prepared to accept Iran having a peaceful, heavily monitored nuclear capability, signaling that some enrichment activities could continue. The United States also dropped the precondition of requiring Iran to suspend enrichment in order to begin direct talks on the nuclear issue. These clarifications made it possible for the Iranians to move forward. As a result of the dialogue and an exchange of letters between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Obama, U.S. officials came away with the belief that Iran was ready to begin negotiations that would ensure their nuclear activities were strictly limited to peaceful purposes.

There were reportedly a total of 12 such meetings convened in Muscat, Geneva, and New York over a period of about 16 months. This under-the-radar dialogue paved the way to formal negotiations within the context of the “P5+1” group that included the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany.

The Iranian leadership took the outreach seriously because it knew the decision to engage was made at the highest level in Washington. The Iranian negotiators, in turn, were authorized to take part in the discussions by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The direct channel made it possible to conduct the sensitive talks away from the limelight and allowed the negotiators to have substantive, detailed discussions over a solid period of time. (The breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations began in a similar way when Obama authorized secret talks in the spring of 2013.) The dialogue provided opportunities for American and Iranian officials to convey authoritative messages and reassurances, opening the way for an interim deal.

While keeping in mind the many failed attempts at engagement since U.S.-Iran relations were severed in 1980 — along with the considerable domestic political constraints they were sure to face — American and Iranian officials concluded they would have a greater chance of success by limiting the focus of their discussions to Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions relief. They adopted a “win-win” narrative early on, acknowledging that each side would have to make concessions in order to get to a successful outcome.

The many profound differences that exist between the two governments were not part of the dialogue — nor were the objectives of a broader rapprochement and diplomatic normalization. They set an initial goal of hammering out an interim agreement, which froze key elements of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief and provided the time and political space for the P5+1 to pursue a comprehensive accord. As part of this incremental and painstaking process, a framework agreement was reached in April 2015, setting a path to a final agreement in July 2015.

The interim agreement was already in place for two years by the time implementation of the JCPOA began in January 2016. Iran’s full compliance with this interim deal — which was consistently verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency during this period — offered a way to test Iran and served as a much-needed trust-building function for both sides. This was important because Iran, like North Korea, had violated international nonproliferation norms in the past.

The discussions were limited to what both sides deemed to be a very specific set of agenda items in the nuclear field (this focus enabled the U.S. to maintain its full set of sanctions related to terrorism and human rights against Iran). Unlike the 1994 Agreed Framework that sought to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and ultimately failed, the negotiations and the resulting agreement with Iran did not call for a normalization of relations. In the end, both sides’ commitment to a “win-win” outcome allowed them each to say they succeeded in fulfilling their objectives. The multilateral context of the P5+1 provided the framework that made a final agreement achievable.

In addition to this breakthrough with Iran on its nuclear program, Obama’s policy of engaging so-called rogue and pariah governments brought about historic openings with Myanmar and Cuba, resulting in the restoration of diplomatic relations with both countries after decades of estrangement and hostility.

The administration’s limited outreach to North Korea — arguably the toughest of these cases — stands in sharp contrast. In fact, there has been no meaningful official dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un assumed power following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011.

As the Obama presidency draws to a close, the intensifying stalemate over Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear weapons program will be passed along to the next president. Whether a new U.S. administration would be willing to expend the political capital needed to begin diplomatic engagement with North Korea early on is a big question. But it likely will not have a choice given North Korea’s steadily expanding nuclear ambitions — both in terms of intentions and actual progress — along with its growing ability to work around sanctions.

When a new administration takes office in January 2017, a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea should place high on its to-do list. A review should yield a definitive conclusion that the policy of “strategic patience” — continuing to apply pressure through sanctions and waiting to see if North Korea will change its current course and denuclearize or collapse — is not working. The right next step would be to take a page from Obama’s Iran playbook and, while ramping up the pressure track, pursue aggressive diplomacy with Pyongyang as a priority with the aim of bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table and reviving the six-party talks. Key elements of this approach must include pressing Beijing to play a more constructive role while strengthening policy coordination with Seoul, Tokyo, and other partners.

Perhaps the most obvious and biggest lesson to be gleaned from the Iran nuclear deal for North Korea is that principled and pragmatic diplomacy in the absence of trust is hard, but it’s not impossible. The four-year plus period that began with the secret negotiations in July 2012 to the present is the most intensive run of continuous, direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington in nearly four decades. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is on track to end his tenure as having had more face-to-face meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif than with any other foreign minister. Such interactions, which were once unthinkable, have now become normal.

Of course, the case of North Korea presents a unique set of circumstances and challenges. But, as outlined above, there are some guiding principles that could be taken from the experience with Iran. Without buy-in at the highest level of leadership, any effort to engage is likely to lead to a dead end. Given the outsize sensitivities and deep mistrust in these cases, a low-key and steady direct channel for dialogue would provide the best way forward. Sticking to a specific set of mutually agreed upon agenda items and manageable win-win objectives and working within a broader multilateral framework would increase the chance of reaching acceptable and sustainable outcomes.

Pyongyang’s track record of deception, provocation, and violation of past agreements and United Nations resolutions is not reassuring. But the absence of dialogue puts us at a real disadvantage as we have very little direct knowledge about North Korea. Even if dialogue doesn’t lead to a breakthrough as it did with Tehran, engagement could provide opportunities to assess the North Korean leadership’s strategic priorities, capabilities, intentions, and threat perceptions — and lead to more informed judgments and better options for U.S. policy beyond waiting and seeing.

Suzanne DiMaggio is a senior fellow at New America, where she directs a long-running U.S.-Iran policy dialogue and a recently launched U.S.-North Korea Track 2 Dialogue.

Image credit: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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