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.
- Bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Report Launch | Monday, July 24 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Live Webcast | On May 30, 2017, CSIS announced the formation of a Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. After meeting three times and going through several rounds of discussions, this task force has identified actionable recommendations that the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress can take to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance programs. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) will provide opening remarks, a panel of select task force members will discuss the findings, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will provide closing remarks.
- Media Diplomacy: Challenging the Indo-Pak Narrative | Monday, July 24 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The dominant national narratives in India and Pakistan fuel tensions between the two nations. Journalists and social media users play a critical role in crafting hostile public opinions and inciting further animosity. Join the Atlantic Council for a conversation to discuss the influence of media on public perception in India and Pakistan. In a discussion introduced and moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Senator Mushahid Hussain and Minister Manish Tewari will address the role of media in shaping debates emanating from India and Pakistan.
- Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval? | Tuesday, July 25 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | While tensions mount between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia finds itself embroiled in controversy over the royal succession: when King Salman named his son Mohammed Bin Salman crown prince in June, he displaced his elder cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is well respected at home and here in the United States. Meanwhile, conflict continues with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Yemen, and with Qatar closer to home. The Trump administration needs a stable Gulf region to sustain and advance American interests and those of its allies. What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia and the United States? What role should the Trump administration play with its regional partners in the GCC? Panelists include Mohammed Alyahya, Fatimah S. Baeshen, and Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent. Hudson Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the conversation.
- Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse: Economic, Social, and Political Challenges | Wednesday, July 26 | 11:45 am – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Venezuela, a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, is facing an economic crisis unseen outside of wartime. Chronic food and medicine shortages have plagued the country, and the crime rate has soared as people turn to black markets to secure common goods. Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to contest President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In opposition to the vote scheduled at the end of this month to secure Maduro’s grasp on power, millions of Venezuelans around the world participated in a symbolic July 16 referendum calling for new elections and opposing further changes to the country’s constitution. On Wednesday, panelists Gustavo Coronel, Dr. Rubén Perina, Gabriela Febres-Cordero, and Dr. Boris Saavedra will discuss the political, social, and economic turmoil in Venezuela. Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
- Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff | Thursday, July 27 | 10 am – 12 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally Bhutan view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. This event will assess the current dispute and place it in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event will discuss possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia. The panel features Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao; Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; and Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Concil.
- The Ramifications of Rouhani’s Reelection | Friday, July 28 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | On Friday, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland will host a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The event will present new data gathered since the May presidential elections on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward Rouhani, the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration, regional crises and Iranian domestic policies. Panelists include Nadereh Chamlou, Ebrahim Mohseni, and Paul Pillar. Discussion will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
- Losing An Enemy: Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive Trump? | Monday, June 19 | 12 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an unlikely diplomatic collaboration initiated by three European countries and realized only after the United States took a leading role. Join founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) Trita Parsi for a conversation about the history, success, and challenges facing the Iran nuclear deal. Parsi is the author of three books about U.S.-Iran relations. The discussion will be moderated by career journalist and Acting Director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin.
- The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya | Tuesday, June 20 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a discussion on its new report, The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya, shedding light on the rise of jihadist actors in Libya and the dangers they pose for post-conflict state-building. As Libya continues to hold an important position in the global jihadist network, understanding the trajectories of groups like ISIS will be crucial to understanding the fate of the country and sources of its instability. The report, co-authored by panelists Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran, examines jihadist dynamics in Libya and offers recommendations to address this threat. RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis will also join the discussion.
- Indian Prime Minister Modi visits the U.S. and Israel | Wednesday, June 21 | 9:30 am – 12 pm | Brookings Institute | Register Here | On June 25-26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Trump for the first time. Shortly after, he will travel to Israel for the first-ever visit by an Indian premier. Join The India Project and the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings for one panel each focused on India’s relationship with the United States and Israel – two countries with which it enjoys close partnerships. Panelists will discuss prospects for bilateral, trilateral, and international cooperation. After each session, panelists will take audience questions.
- Securing Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: How Should the U.S. and the European Union Work Together? | Wednesday, June 21 5:30-6:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As war rages on in Syria and Yemen, instability persists in the Sinai and Libya, and the recent Qatar crisis underscores rivalries and animosities in the Middle East and North Africa, American and European actors search for ways to bring stability to the MENA region. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Mike Doran welcomes Nick Westcott, European External Action Service Managing Director for the MENA, for a discussion about European policy and cooperation moving forward. Doors open at 5:00 pm.
- The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions | Wednesday, June 21 | 6:30-8 pm | United Nations Association – National Capital Area | Register Here | Since President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, negative perceptions of immigrants and refugees have been on the rise. Against this climate, the UNA-NCA presents personal accounts of refugees in the D.C. area and a panel discussion featuring Niemat Ahmadi, president of the Darfur Women Action Group; Faith Akovi Cooper, regional advisor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre; Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Refugees International, to dispel myths and misconceptions. The panel will be moderated by Patrick Realiza, chair of the UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee.
- Settlements at 50 Years – An Obstacle to Peace and Democracy | Friday, June 23 | 12:30-1:45 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | This month marks 50 years of Israeli control over the West Bank. Although most Israelis support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and oppose annexing large parts of the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements and is considering annexing portions of the West Bank. What drives the Israeli government in this regard? What are the implications for future peace? Join president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) Talia Sasson for a conversation moderated by Haaretz‘s Washington correspondent Amir Tibon.
After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.
That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.
It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.
The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.
Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.
Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.
In the final report of their Middle East Strategy Task Force issued yesterday, Steve Hadley and Madeleine Albright say
…the days of external powers trying to orchestrate and even dictate political reality in the region are finished. So is a regional political order of governments demanding obedience in return for public sector employment and related state subsidies.
They paint instead a future of external powers collaborating to help end civil wars, listening to local voices, and interacting with more responsive and inclusive governments. Their sovereignty restored, if need be by military action, these governments would join in partnerships with each other and compacts with external powers to encourage local initiatives, harness human resources, and incentivize regional cooperation. What’s not to like?
It’s that premise, which looks to me wrong. The US decisions not to or orchestrate or dictate a political outcome in Syria and Libya do not mean that the days of international intervention are over. Russia and Iran are for now doing quite well at it, even if in the end I think they will regret it. Egypt has in fact restored its autocracy and Bashar al Assad clearly intends to do so in Syria. Does anyone imagine that the post-war regime in Yemen will be a more inclusive and responsive one? It isn’t likely in Libya either.
I agree with Madeleine and Steve that failing to implement something like the reforms they point to will likely mean continuation of instability, incubation of extremists, and jihadist resurgence, even if the war against Islamic State is successful in removing it from its control of territory in Iraq and Syria. The instability in the Middle East is clearly the result of governance failures associated with the Arab republics, which had neither the direct control over oil resources required to buy off their citizens nor the wisdom to empower them and enable more decentralized and effective governance.
The question, which Ken Pollack rightly asks, is whether the US has the will and the resources required even to begin to end the civil wars and encourage the required reforms. I think the answer is all too obviously “no.” Ken suggests this means the US would be wiser to flee than to fight with inadequate means.
But the way in which we flee matters. It is the US military presence in the Middle East, which represents upwards of 90% of the costs, that needs to draw down, if only because it is a terrorist target and helps them to recruit. It totals on the order of $80 billion per year, a truly astronomical sum. While I haven’t done a detailed analysis, it is hard to imagine that we couldn’t draw down half the US military in the Middle East once the Islamic State has been chased from the territory it controls without much affecting the things Ken thinks we should still care about: Israel, terrorism, and oil.
Oil is the one so many people find inescapable, including Ken. It is traded in a global market, so a disruption anywhere means a price hike everywhere, damaging the global economy. But there are far better ways to avoid an oil price hike than sending a US warship into the strait of Hormuz, which only makes the price hike worse. For example:
- getting India and China to carry 90 days of imports as strategic stocks (as the International Energy Agency members do),
- encouraging them to join in multilateral naval efforts to protect oil trade,
- getting oil producers to build pipelines that circumvent Hormuz (and the Bab al Mandab), and
- encouraging Iran and Saudi Arabia to build a multilateral security system for the Gulf that enables all the riparian states a minimum of protection from their neighbors while encouraging protection as well for their own populations.
I would add that we need to continue to worry about nuclear proliferation, because the Iran deal only provides a 15-year hiatus, and to provide assistance to those in the Middle East who are ready and willing to try to reform their societies in directions that respect human rights.
All of this requires far more diplomatic commitment than we have been prepared to ante up lately, but it is not expensive (for the US) or unimaginable for others. A vigorous diplomatic effort far short of what Madeleine and Steve advocate but far more than Ken’s “flight” is the right formula in my view.
I’m doing a press briefing on the implications of the American election for foreign policy in a few hours. Here are the speaking notes I’ve prepared for myself:
- It is a pleasure to be with you tonight, as America concludes an ugly election campaign and decides on its 45th president.
- I won’t pretend to be neutral: I have supported Hillary Clinton with words, money, and even knocking on doors in West Philadelphia.
- But in these opening remarks, I would like to focus first not on the candidates but rather on the process, which is a complicated one.
- One consequence is that there is little uniformity: as you’ll see tonight, the states will close their polls at different times, starting in just a few minutes at 7 pm with Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.
- The initial results will likely favor Trump, but swing states North Carolina and Ohio close their polls at 7:30 pm and by 8 pm lots of Clinton states close their polls.
- Key then will be Florida and Pennsylvania, and at 9 pm Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Clinton could be in trouble if she doesn’t win there.
- In the meanwhile, you’ll be getting exit polling from many of the “swing” states, those that might go one way or the other. Exit polls in my view are not terribly reliable: sampling errors can be significant, and in many states a significant percentage of people have already voted.
- Not only are rules and procedures decided by the states, but the vote in each state determines that state’s votes in the electoral college that meets in state capitals on December 19.
- Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of Representatives and Senators. Because each state has two senators, this favors less populous (more Republican) states, but the reliably Democratic District of Columbia, which has no senators, gets three votes as well.
- As a result, an election can be close in the popular vote (polling suggests Trump and Clinton are within 3 or 4 percentage points of each other), but the electoral college difference can be big.
- If Trump were to get fewer than 200 electoral votes (and Clinton the remaining 338 plus), that might be considered a landslide, even if the popular vote is close.
- It is also possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and win in the electoral college. That happened with George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. I went to bed convinced Gore had won.
- By morning, the Florida controversy had erupted and the election was eventually decided in the Supreme Court, which allowed Florida’s determination of the winner to stand and Bush to become President without a popular vote majority.
- The lesson here is don’t go to bed too early tonight. It may be late before the outcome is clear and unequivocal. In the last three elections it was past 11 pm.
- What does it all mean for foreign policy?
- First, I think an uncontested and clear outcome is highly desirable. The world does not need another month of uncertainty about who will be the 45th president.
- Second, there are dramatic differences between Trump, who prides himself on unpredictability, and Clinton, who has a long track record well within the post-911 foreign policy consensus.
- Trump is erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic. He wants to put America first, which he has defined not only as ignoring others, blocking immigrants, and doubting America’s alliances but also destroying the existing international trading system and illogically pursuing a bromance with Vladimir Putin.
- Clinton is committed, studious, internationalist, all perhaps to a fault. She once pursued a reset with Putin that failed. She wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority some think President Obama surrendered in his retrenchment.
- A word or two about what this all means in some important parts of the world.
- In the Middle East and Europe, including the Baltics and Ukraine, Clinton is far more likely to push back on Russian aggressiveness than Trump.
- In Asia, Trump has occasionally talked tough about China’s trade policy and suggested that South Korea and Japan might want to get their own nuclear weapons.
- Clinton would certainly not want that but might also be tough with China on trade. She would likely want to continue to build up American alliances in Asia, including with India and Vietnam.
- Both Clinton and Trump oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but Clinton would likely want to renegotiate parts of it and proceed while Trump would scrap it entirely.
- Presidents do not always get to decide which issues they focus on. I would expect Moscow and Beijing, and perhaps others, to take an early opportunity to test the new president.
- An incident involving China in the South China Sea? North Korean launch of a missile that could reach the US? A new push by Russian-supported insurgents in Donbas? An incident with Iranian ships or missiles in the Gulf? A massive cyberattack?
- Clinton understands the capabilities and limits of American power, as well as the need for allied support. Trump does not. He mistakes bravado for strength and unpredictability for leverage.
- Most of the world understands this and favors Clinton. Moscow may not be alone in favoring Trump, but it is certainly lonely.
- Those of us who enjoy foreign policy for a living—Republicans as well as Democrats like me—will likewise be almost universally relieved if she, not he, becomes president.
- But the evening is young. Let’s enjoy it with some questions!