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 Iran’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:
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.
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.
President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?
Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.
The problem is that those goals are incompatible. There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.
In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):
It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.
Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.
There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.
This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.
There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.
So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.
Celeste Ward Gventer and I did this piece for Luke Vargas’ radio program Wake. We were actually recorded separately and spliced together by Luke. I’m not sure I approve of the process, but the result is okay, apart from the more or less obvious glitches in the transcript.
For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.
Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.
Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.
America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:
Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.
I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:
Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:
Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center