Pantelis Ikonomou, former International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards inspector, writes:
The on-going North Korean nuclear crisis, in addition to the previous nuclear crises with Iraq and Iran, demonstrates that we lack a coherent, peaceful approach to respond decisively to major nuclear proliferation threats.
In all three cases, world leaders have wavered between war and diplomacy. The results have been suboptimal.
Iraq: war was an excessive response
In September 1980, Iranian airplanes bombed Iraq’s* French-origin research reactor Osiraq. The facility was partially destroyed. Teheran called the attack a preventive act. Notably, Iraq was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), subject to international Safeguards inspections, and free of anomaly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Eight months later, in June 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osiraq reactor. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UN General Assembly, and the world’s mass media rebuked the Israelis for the attack. Remarkably, the US administration called it an act of defense.
In 2003, the United States accused Iraq of having restarted a nuclear weapons program. Reference was made to nuclear weapons related activities, detected in 1991 during the first war Gulf War. This embryonic nuclear program was destroyed by international inspectors immediately thereafter. The IAEA did not support the 2003 allegations. Nonetheless, the US decided that diplomacy had failed and, without UN endorsement, invaded Iraq with a coalition of the willing.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not disclose a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2005, the IAEA’s Director General ElBaradei and nuclear inspectors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Iran: limited diplomatic postponement
Iran’s nuclear program included sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities, such as enrichment and reprocessing. These were conducted in line with the NPT, but nonetheless contained a possible military dimension. The existence of dual-purpose nuclear activities within the NPT constitutes the Treaty’s Achilles heel. While presumed nefarious intentions can cause heightened alertness, they cannot be legally penalized.
Iran’s steady development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities caused international concern that slowly developed into a crisis. In the years after 2006, the UNSC imposed economic and trade sanctions, leading to diplomatic negotiations with Iran by the P5+1: the US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany. The July 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement imposes a 10- 15-year reduction and freeze of Iran’s sensitive activities along with gradual lifting of sanctions.
IAEA inspectors are monitoring and verifying the implementation of an agreed plan, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If Iran breaks out of the 2015 agreement, it would need ten months or longer to produce the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon, which is enough time for response measures.
North Korea: an on-going threat
North Korea joined the IAEA in 1974, signed the NPT in 1985 and in 1992 signed its NPT Safeguards Agreement. From the very beginning, Pyongyang’s behavior was not consistent with its binding international commitments. Already in 1992, IAEA inspectors found inconsistencies in North Korea’s declarations and the year after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT.
Just one day before the withdrawal was due to take effect, the US persuaded North Korea to suspend its decision. Six months later, in December 1993, IAEA Director General Hans Blix announced that the Agency could no longer provide “any meaningful assurances” that North Korea was not producing nuclear weapons.
A US initiative saved the situation. On 21 October 1994, an Agreed Framework was signed between the US and North Korea in Geneva. The UNSC then requested the IAEA to monitor the freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities under the Agreed Framework.
In December 2002, North Korea tampered with IAEA surveillance equipment and a few days later requested the immediate removal of IAEA inspectors from the country. Then, on 10 January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT and in April 2003 declared it had nuclear weapons.
During the six-party talks (USA, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) starting in 2003 on solving North Korea’s nuclear crisis, North Korea was repeatedly accused of violating the Agreed Framework and other international agreements, thus triggering several IAEA and UNSC resolutions.
North Korea’s capability to produce both plutonium and uranium nuclear weapons is rapidly advancing. Its capacity to enrich uranium has doubled in recent years. US and Chinese officials believe that there are more than 20 nuclear bombs in its arsenal.
The best that can be hoped for with North Korea is an immediate freeze of nuclear and ballistic missile activities. A return to zero nuclear weapons capability is a utopian expectation. With only one exception, no non-NPT member with nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel) has ever returned to zero nuclear weapons capability or indicated intentions to do so. The one exception is South Africa, which voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons in 1990 under IAEA supervision, as apartheid fell.
Though nuclear proliferation is a leading global threat, we have failed to demonstrate sufficient competence in responding.
The rhetoric of terror on both sides combined with the risk of miscalculation or a military error is extremely worrying. It only accelerates a dangerous nuclear vicious cycle.
PS: With apologies to Dr. Ikonomou, this seems an only slightly appropriate place at which to share John Oliver’s view of North Korea and prospects for opening good communications, among other things via the accordion:
*The original mistakenly said “Iran’s.” Apologies for the editorial error.
By now, most have recognized the egregiously offensive statement President Trump made yesterday about the Charlottesville melee and subsequent vehicle attack. He said:
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.
This equated white supremacists and Fascist sympathizers with the counter-protesters. The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer commented:
Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.
He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides!
So he implied the antifa are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.
No condemnation at all.
When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.
Really, really good.
God bless him.
Unfortunately, some are attributing Trump’s obtuse statement to ignorance. They suggest he just doesn’t understand enough American history to appreciate that white supremacists are racists and Nazi sympathizers are authoritarians and anti-Semites.
This is profoundly wrong. Trump knows who the people carrying those flags are, and he personally sympathizes with their views. His dog whistle appeals to racism during the campaign–“where is my black guy?” “what have you got to lose?”–and his behavior since taking office are unequivocal. He is trying to reduce the number of disadvantaged minorities voting, getting into college, and entering the US. He wants to increase taxes on them and deprive them of health insurance. He wants to reduce government benefits that go disproportionately to minorities. Nothing of consequence that Trump has done since gaining office is focused on responding to minority grievances or ensuring them equal protection of the law.
Some will counter by asking how he can be an anti-Semite and at the same time be so protective and trusting of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law? Not to mention his coterie of Jewish lawyers. After all, Stephen Miller of “cosmopolitan” fame is Jewish. My short answer is this: many anti-Semites have favorite Jews and are not above using them to serve their own interests. Some even think Jews smarter than other people, or at least cleverer. What is more useful to Trump than Jews who do not object to his white supremacist supporters? Besides, Trump knows that so long as he stays on the good side of the neo-Nazis, they won’t target his family or his loyal Jewish advisers.
Trump’s effort to appear objective and balanced by referring to “many sides” failed miserably. But we shouldn’t imagine that if only he knew a bit more history he would not make such a mistake. It was not a mistake, but a reflection of where this president locates himself on the political spectrum: he is way over to the white supremacist wing, which most of us thought no longer capable of flapping. We were wrong.
The problem today is not Charlottesville. The problem is the White House, starting at the top. The President can’t bring himself to denounce white supremacists, or even to say that Nazi flags have no legitimate role in American politics, even if the constitution protects their display. His acolytes likewise willfully ignore white supremacists who have killed many more Americans since 9/11 than Islamist extremists have.
If you put America first and want to protect its citizens, you would deal with the violent protesters in Charlottesville first and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later. Or at least you would pay some attention to denouncing the thugs who think you are their leader–they gleefully shout “Heil Trump”–and skip the bromides about unspecified violence and vague “unity.”
You would also want to maintain America’s international credibility. Trump has spent the week shredding it. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and claiming we are “locked and loaded,” it appears virtually none of the necessary preparations for military action against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have been taken. Forces have not been deployed, civilians have not been evacuated, and the Pentagon is denying that the use of force–notably not yet authorized by Congress–is imminent.
To top it off, Trump threatened military action also against Venezuela, where we would almost surely be better off to let nature take its course in ending President Maduro’s shambolic governance.
Trump’s threats are not credible, which means it will be far more difficult to mount a credible threat in the future. We are already at the point that many in the US government are ignoring the president: the Pentagon is not implementing his ban on transgender people, Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to stifle talk of war with North Korea, Republicans in Congress are heading towards a compromise on maintaining Obamacare. Other governments are laughing at Trump’s obsession with undoing whatever his predecessor did. If Trump fails to follow through on his threat against North Korea, and the North Koreans continue to test missiles and nuclear weapons, how much credibility will the United States have in the future?
Of course it is possible Trump will follow this week’s bluster with a cruise missile attack on North Korea, hoping to reproduce the applause he got after the attack on a Syrian air base in April and distract attention from the investigation of Russian interference in the election. But that attack was a one-off that has had little impact. Assad has continued to use small quantities of chemical weapons and to prioritize attacks against the relatively moderate opposition in Syria. A similar one-off against North Korea would predictably have no serious impact on its well-dispersed and hidden missile and nuclear programs.
Nor will many applaud. North Korea might strike back, most likely against Guam, but possibly also against Seoul or even Tokyo. How long do we think America’s friends and allies will remain friends and allies if Washington is seen as having started a war from which they will suffer the most? What are the odds that NATO could be held together once the Europeans conclude the President is rash, unreliable, and likely to provoke adversaries?
The Europeans can be sure of one thing, however: the adversary Trump will never provoke is Vladimir Putin. The reason is increasingly apparent: Russian money sustains Trump’s real estate empire, which was likely used to launder ill-gotten gains of Putin’s best friends. Trump can never turn on Putin, lest Putin pull the plug on Russian financing. This is blackmail, not collusion. We needn’t worry too much about Trump intentionally coming to blows with Moscow, which is using its leverage over the President to gain advantages in Syria.
Can Ukraine be far behind? My guess is that the Administration is busily trying to cut a deal on Ukraine, one that it could argue should lead to lifting of the sanctions on Russia. Fortunately, sharp eyes in Congress will examine any such proposition. It will be difficult for Trump to sell the Ukrainians short, the way he did the Syrian opposition.
The United States matters to friends, allies, and enemies less today than at any time during my lifetime, which corresponds to the entire post-World War II period. The damage to our web of alliances, our international credibility, and our position of leadership in the past seven months is gigantic. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are proving incapable of blocking the President from his worst instincts. The only relief will come when Trump is gone. But none of us can tell when that might be. It keeps getting worse.
PS: It got worse within minutes of my publishing this piece. Trump said, in response to a car plowing into peaceful counterprotesters: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”
Following my op/ed for the Washington Post on this subject, Peter Galbraith and I debated the issue for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Al Rudaw TV:
Comments as always are welcome.
I won’t have time this morning to write about President Trump’s foolish “fire and fury” threat against North Korea, which provoked a specific Pyongyang threat against the US territory of Guam. In any event, I wouldn’t do better than Robert Litwak, who had intelligent things to say about the issue this morning on NPR:
Secretary of State Tillerson is wandering around the world saying the US wants to talk with North Korea, while the President blusters. That isn’t a good way to get the diplomacy going, because the North Koreans have a better alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) than we do: they need only continue their nuclear and missile programs and be prepared to launch a conventional artillery attach on Seoul if we start to act. In the game Trump is playing–military threat–North Korea has the upper hand.
Not everyone will be as interested as I was in this detailed, hour-long briefing Friday on the war against ISIS, done by Special Presidential Envoy (for the global coalition to defeat ISIS) Brett McGurk:
Compliments to Brett for doing this in such a professional and informative way.
Some highlights in Syria:
- The ground war is going well, led by capable and effective (Kurdish-led) Syrian Democratic Forces moving towards Raqqa. President Trump’s delegation of tactical authority to field commanders has hastened the process. ISIS is losing territory rapidly.
- Deconfliction of SDF forces with Russian and Syrian government forces is functioning well near Raqqa and in the southwest, where the ceasefire is working.
- Displaced people in Syria are returning to their homes fairly quickly, once demining takes place. They flee towards the SDF, not towards ISIS-controlled territory.
- Humanitarian supplies have been pre-positioned and are proving adequate to meet demand, albeit with the usual logistical difficulties.
- The US will do “stabilization,” but not reconstruction or nationbuilding. Stabilization includes demining, rubble removal, restoring basic electricity and water supplies but no education or health services, which will be local responsibilities.
- The war against ISIS is part of a two-phase process, which includes political transition in Syria.
- The international community will not be prepared to fund the $200 billion (or multiples of that number) in reconstruction needs until President Assad is gone.
- The Iraqi Security Forces have “not lost a battle” in the current campaign against ISIS.
- Mosul is a much larger challenge than Raqqa, involving more than ten times as many people.
- The US will not do long-term reconstruction; the Iraqi government will get funding from the IMF and World Bank. Kuwait will host a donor conference.
- The next battle will be for Tal Afar, then Hawija, then Al Qaim on the border with Syria.
- The US opposes the “ill-timed” and “ill-prepared” referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan scheduled for September 25.
Plans are being laid for opening key border crossings between Syria and Jordan as well as between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. ISIS finances are drying up, and it can no long recruit or deploy significant numbers of foreign fighters.
I doubt the notion that big parts of Syria can be liberated with Bashar al Assad still in power in Damascus. His regime, with its Russian, Iranian and Shia militia allies, has been more than willing to attack any area outside government control, declaring it infested by terrorists. Will Moscow be ready, willing and able to restrain Bashar once Raqqa is in SDF control? Or will the Americans, anxious to depart as quickly as possible, negotiate its turnover to the Damascus?
We’ll have to wait and see whether the “no more than stabilization” approach Brett advocates, based he says on experience in Iraq after the US collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, will work. No doubt devolving as much responsibility to local councils in Syria, which I gather are already operating for Tabqa and Raqqa, and to the Iraqi government is a good idea in theory. Local people know the social terrain far better than foreigners. The question is whether it will work in practice.
There are two big, immediate challenges: security (including keeping ISIS fighters from embedding in the local communities and preventing revenge killings) and property rights. Some local security forces have been trained, but it is not yet clear how effective they will be. Even if they are close to perfection, a major issue remains: where will miscreants be tried? A police force without a court system is an instrument of repression, not justice. The same issue arises with respect to property rights: who will decide who is the rightful owner of the apartments that remain standing? What property rights remain, if any, to those whose apartments have been destroyed?
Odds are the post-war period in Syria will be particularly messy, since not everyone is agreed on who holds legitimate authority. In Iraq, there is more consensus, but if Prime Minister Abadi fails to establish more inclusive governance, or allows the Shia popular mobilization forces involved in the liberation of Mosul to ride herd over the non-Shia populations of Ninewa, continuing insurgency could well be the outcome.
The Islamic State 2.0 (I count its original incarnation in Iraq as 1.0, before the migration to Syria) is close to defeat. Job #1 now is to prevent the emergence of Islamic State 3.0.
PS: One other thing. I’m concerned about Brett’s repeated indications that the coalition forces will take no prisoners but instead kill as many Islamic Staters as possible. There are laws of war that need to be observed, even if opponents don’t.