Avoiding Denuclearization Mistakes with Iran

The North Korea and Ukraine experiences offer some useful lessons, positive and negative.

By Nah Liang Tuang for

According to renowned International Relations scholar Kenneth Waltz, “The most influential factors influencing a country’s decision to undertake a covert nuclear weapons program are the views of a country’s leaders.” Thus, while former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed a tough pro-nuclear programme policy towards the West, his successor, President Hassan Rouhani has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the West and, in particular, the U.S. over suspicions that Iran is militarizing its nuclear program.

Indeed, optimism is growing over a potential negotiated end to the nuclear stand-off since Rouhani has expressed a desire for progress in nuclear talks with the U.S. and other powers, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about a nuclear program deal, and Presidents Obama and Rouhani had an unprecedented 15-minute telephone call.    

The Ukrainian Denuclearization Lesson

Amid this positive development where fears about Iranian nuclear weapons might be resolved and even U.S.-Iranian rapprochement seems possible, it is worth noting that potential nuclear arms proliferators or even actual nuclear weapons possessors do not relinquish nuclear weapons capabilities without worthwhile quid pro quos. The Ukraine, which inherited a sizeable nuclear arsenal upon the U.S.SR’s dissolution, is a good example.

History tells us that the Ukrainian parliament approved the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as a successor state to the Soviet Union without caveats in February 1994, joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in November and sent the last nuclear weapons to Russia by June 1, 1996. However, in return for nuclear arms relinquishment, the Ukraine received: 1) security assurances from both the U.S. and Russia against the threat or use of nuclear weapons, 2) compensation for the nuclear warheads removed from Ukrainian soil in the form of uranium fuel for civil nuclear power generators and debt forgiveness for previous energy imports from Russia, and 3) tacit financial assistance from the U.S.

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Therefore, Kiev managed to improve its national security, obtain energy sustenance for its impoverished Soviet era economy, negotiate foreign financial aid and even gain prestige by negotiating with the hegemons of the Cold War as a diplomatic equal. When this denuclearization outcome is referenced to Iran, it can be argued that if the Rouhani government is willing to negotiate in good faith, all of Tehran’s accepted requests have to be expeditiously implemented to conclusively end this nuclear impasse.     

The North Korean Cautionary Tale

Turning to a failed denuclearization deal, the 1994 Agreed Framework that concluded the first North Korean nuclear crisis is an example of a comprehensive nuclear disarmament package that soured on neglect of the nuclear proliferator’s concerns.

Basically, the Framework stated that: 1) Efficient electricity generating but proliferation resistant light water reactors (LWR) would be built for North Korea; 2) The West would provide 500,000 tons of fuel aid annually; 3) The U.S. and North Korea would reduce existing barriers to economic ties, open diplomatic offices in each other’s capitals and work towards normalization of relations; and 4) The U.S. would provide formal assurances against the threat and use of nuclear weapons. In return, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program, permit international monitoring, allow proliferation-prone materials to be removed and dismantle its nuclear facilities by the completion date of the LWRs.

In theory, the agreement met Pyongyang’s economic needs via electricity provided by the LWRs and fuel aid which could sustain North Korean export industries while the reduction of barriers to economic ties would promote North Korean exports and attract foreign capital. Regarding national security, the assurances against U.S. nuclear weapons and the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations pointed towards a more benign existential paradigm. Lastly, the signing of a de facto denuclearization treaty with the world’s sole superpower hints at the prestige gained from U.S. recognition.          

However, we know that the Agreed Framework did not satisfy Pyongyang as it sought a way out with a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program that was discovered in 2002 and led to the agreement’s repudiation. On closer examination, the framework’s implementation was flawed since: 1) The construction of the LWRs was clearly behind schedule and could not be completed by the agreed deadline of 2003; 2) The U.S. did not formally assure Pyongyang against nuclear weapons use; and 3) The U.S. did not implement full normalization of political and economic relations as there was no movement towards a peace treaty, no exchange of liaison offices, and North Korea was still listed as a terrorism sponsor which subjected it to U.S. trade sanctions. Hence, despite popular demonization of Pyongyang, motivational analysis would argue that it resorted to a HEU program because neither economic pressures nor national security concerns were addressed even as North Korea adhered to its obligations and suspended its plutonium based nuclear program (the HEU program was not covered under the Agreed Framework).

Learning from the Mistakes of the Past

When U.S. negotiators meet their Iranian counterparts, they should be advised that agreements look good on paper but mean nothing until they are actually implemented. Whatever Tehran might successfully ask for, whether it be the lifting of all economic sanctions and/or security guarantees from the U.S., its interlocutors must remember that the entire package of benefits must be delivered if international moral pressure is to ensure that Iran upholds its part of the bargain to lay the Iranian nuclear weapons ghost to rest. Ultimately, the international community wants a repeat of the successful Ukrainian outcome and not the frustrating North Korean one.   

Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University