As negotiations continue with Iran related to its nuclear weapons program, a look back into recent history provides a worrying example of the failure of nonproliferation.
North Korea has been able to successfully develop and test nuclear weapons despite an agreement with the United States, and some commentators think that there is little reason to believe that Iran will not be able to achieve the same feat. As James S. Robbins writes for US News, any potential deal with Iran looks set to be far less robust than the one which ultimately failed to prevent North Korea getting its hands on nuclear weapons.
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Failure of Agreed Framework should act as a warning
At the beginning of the 1990s, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons became an increasing important issue. In 1994 an agreement was reached between Washington and Pyongyang which would supposedly see North Korea freeze and dismantle its nuclear program, submit its spent uranium fuel to international observers and grant access to the International Atomic Energy Agency so that it could verify compliance through a series of “special inspections.”
In return for compliance, North Korea would be given two light water reactors, which could not be used for military purposes, a supply of fuel oil and the possibility of normalized relations.
Under the terms of the “Agreed Framework,” the IAEA was present at the Yongbyon nuclear site to ensure compliance. However wrangling over technical terms made it difficult for the agency to know if North Korea’s program had actually been frozen.
North Korea breaks international agreements
As it turned out, Pyongyang had implemented a secret centrifuge program where it may have been producing weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, it continued work on a ballistic missile program despite the fact that ongoing work was having a negative effect on diplomatic relations.
It took until 2002 for the truth to emerge. North Korea admitted that it had been working on a uranium enrichment program in order to make nuclear weapons, violating the Agreed Framework, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other accords.
The IAEA then called in the U.N. Security Council, and the Six Party talks followed. Despite apparent early success in dissuading North Korea from following the path to nuclear weapons, Pyongyang announced a successful nuclear test in 2006.
Failures in North Korea set a dangerous precedent for a potential deal with Iran. The Agreed Framework was certainly stronger on paper than the P5+1 agreement which is currently being proposed with Iran.
Proposed deal with Iran set to be less stringent
Under the Agreed Framework, verification was stringent, the existing nuclear stockpile would have been removed, and the program would have been halted completely. By contrast, the P5+1 negotiations have not taken into account similar objectives.
As a result, any final deal looks set to be weaker than the Agreed Framework which ultimately failed in North Korea. Worryingly, Iran also has a stronger economy and better infrastructure than North Korea has ever had. According to reports, talks are ongoing over a $50 billion no-strings-attached signing bonus, which Tehran will be free to spend on whatever it likes.
Iran not only has its own technical experts, but can also draw on the knowledge which North Korea has gained from its own research. A recent investigation by the Iranian opposition confirmed long-held suspicions that the two countries have been collaborating on nuclear and weapons programs for years.
Neither have economic sanctions prevented Iran from amassing wealth. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used an interview with Charlie Rose to reveal that despite sanctions, Iran possesses sufficient nuclear material to build 8 nuclear weapons.
Iran may possess nuclear weapons despite possible deal
The P5+1 talks with Iran are proposing a similar deal as the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Pyongyang has none of the capabilities, economic or scientific, that Tehran currently possesses, and their deal was stricter in its rules on the existing nuclear program, and yet the Kim regime now has a nuclear weapon.
There is a concern that the P5+1 talks will not prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons, whether a deal is reached or not. Although the international community is now aware of the formerly secret nuclear facility at Fordow, the heavily fortified site would be perfect for continued work on nuclear weapons should Iran be willing to openly flout an agreement like North Korea did.
The proposed sale of S300 missile systems from Russia to Iran would add a formidable layer of defense capabilities to the subterranean site, raising the stakes of any future intervention to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons.
Hope remains that a deal can be struck with Iran, but recent history proves that sometimes such agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. If Tehran proves itself to be as willing as Pyongyang to become an international pariah at the expense of nuclear weapons, the P5+1 talks could be in vain.