Apply Korea lessons to Iran stalemate

September 26, 2005|By Lee Feinstein and Ray Takeyh

WASHINGTON -- The welcome nuclear framework agreement with North Korea signed in Beijing last week is a belated triumph of pragmatism over ideology and suggests a way ahead on a deal with Iran.

The preliminary deal provides an outline for a more detailed agreement to be negotiated among North Korea and the other five parties - the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan - to the still-precarious nuclear talks. The main elements of the deal are essentially the same as the agreement nearly concluded at the end of the second term of President Bill Clinton and gift-wrapped for President Bush in his first term.

Mr. Bush and his most influential advisers spent the next five years denigrating that deal and criticizing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who favored it. The basic concept, "more for more," combined greater concessions from the North (verified abandonment of its nuclear weapons program) in exchange for broader security guarantees and economic ties and assistance from the United States and others, including a no-attack pledge from Washington and an affirmation of South Korea's nonnuclear status.

It has taken a combination of the grind of war in Iraq and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina plus a secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who knows how to play the inside game to turn this around.

The major changes in the U.S. position commit Washington to nothing.

The agreement includes, but does not endorse, Pyongyang's stance on its nuclear rights: "The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy." It also makes an open-ended statement about the possibility of future talks on suspended plans to build a proliferation-resistant reactor for the North: "The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor to the DPRK."

Despite the vague nature of these commitments, they were a bitter pill for the Bush administration, which has opposed the idea of negotiations with the North or with Iran. The administration's motto has been: Better to ignore bad behavior than risk being perceived as rewarding it.

The ignorance-is-bliss policy rests on the false premise that regime change was in the offing in North Korea and Iran. But both of these regimes have turned out to be durable. The cost of waiting out North Korea's Kim Jong Il has been as many as a half-dozen nuclear weapons, which, hopefully, now will be dismantled.

Despite the election of a hard-line government in Iran, the time surprisingly might be ripe for a deal. The premise of the negotiations between the European Union's Britain, France and Germany and Iran was that in exchange for economic concessions, Iran would forfeit its nuclear aspirations.

But Iran's nuclear calculus did not stem from a desire to extract tribute from the international community; it wants security. Iran's cautious reactionaries seek nuclear weapons not as an instrument of aggressive diplomacy but as a viable deterrent against the United States. Today, the massive projection of U.S. power on all of Iran's peripheries and Washington's incendiary rhetoric account for much of Iran's nuclear motivations.

Should the Bush administration replicate its North Korea pledge and offer Iran a similar assurance that it is not seeking to change its regime, it can dispel the theocratic government's ample security concerns. Once Iran's anxieties diminish, its nuclear motivations will similarly deflate.

Indeed, a deal with Iran might prove surprisingly easier; the bankrupt North Korean government demanded ample economic incentives as a price for suspension of its nuclear activities. Oil-rich Iran requires no such tribute, but needs firm guarantees of its territorial integrity and security.

After five years in power, the Bush administration has only witnessed aggravation of two of the most serious proliferation crises in the international community. After dithering passively on the sidelines, it has a surprising ability to potentially resolve both crises. And for an administration mired in an Iraqi quagmire, that is indeed a worthy legacy.

Lee Feinstein and Ray Takeyh are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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