Iran’s Nuclear Quandary

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04/11/2013 ( ANGELES – When the United States and its allies resume talks over Iran’s nuclear
program on November 7-8, the vexing task of crafting Iran’s recent proposal into an
enduring agreement will begin in earnest. There are many obstacles to an agreement,
but among the least examined is the legacy of nuclear-disarmament efforts involving
Libya and North Korea. Both cases raise issues that neither Iran nor the US wants to
see repeated – but that both will have difficulty avoiding.

For the US, North Korea illustrates how a poor but ambitious country developed the
bomb by gaming talks and gaining time. For Iran, Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 2003
relinquishment of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction demonstrates how a regime,
still considered a bête noire by the international community even after
normalization of diplomatic relations, arguably forfeited its survival in 2011 by
forgoing the chance to build a nuclear deterrent. Digging further into each case
illuminates the challenges faced by Iran and its international interlocutors.

What makes the North Korea precedent particularly troubling is how much Iran has
mimicked the regime in Pyongyang. This naturally prompts questions about whether
Iran is using the current round of negotiations as a façade for an ongoing effort to
develop nuclear weapons.

Consider parallels ten years apart. In June 1993, following talks with the US and a
threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea
allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct limited “safeguards
activities.” Then, in October 1994, the US and North Korea entered into the Agreed
Framework to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program.

Similarly, in December 2003, after hiding construction of the Natanz
uranium-enrichment facility and other plants from the IAEA, Iran agreed to sign –
but not ratify – the so-called Additional Protocol, allowing broader application of
IAEA safeguards. Then, in November 2004, in negotiations with European
representatives, Iran agreed to suspend nuclear enrichment.

Neither agreement lasted long. In March 1996, the IAEA reported that North Korea was
not complying with efforts to verify plutonium held at the Yongbyon nuclear
facility. On October 9, 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon, and
the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 calling on the country
to abandon its program and re-join international denuclearization talks. Since then,
North Korea has responded to incremental tightening of international sanctions with
two more nuclear tests, the latest this year under the new leadership of Kim

Likewise, in January 2006, following the collapse of negotiations with European
emissaries, Iran broke the IAEA seals on the Natanz facility’s equipment and storage
areas. The following month, the IAEA reported the Islamic Republic to the Security
Council for its failure to be forthright about its nuclear program. Since then, Iran
has responded to incremental tightening of international sanctions by building more
centrifuges. The question now is whether the North Korea-Iran parallel stops with
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

The Libyan legacy confronts Iran with its own conundrum. Like Iran, Qaddafi’s Libya
suffered economic and political isolation for many years during which it attempted
to advance a WMD program. By the late 1990’s, however, it had had enough.

British and American negotiators secretly met with Libyan counterparts to resolve
the case of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and
other terrorism issues. In the quid pro quo that followed, Qaddafi agreed to
eliminate his nascent nuclear program in exchange for an end to pariah status. This
was coupled with a critical demand: no deal without America’s commitment to eschew
regime change. On December 19, 2003, Libya formally renounced all WMD efforts.

Eight years later, pinned down by a US Predator drone and French airstrikes, Qaddafi
met his demise. Without a nuclear deterrent, his regime was helpless when the US
reneged on the deal – a lesson that has not been lost on North Korea.

Given this history, Iran has a strong incentive to retain at least a
nuclear-breakout option (which would mean completing all but the final steps to
weaponization). Of course, Iran’s leaders may believe that economic isolation is the
greatest danger to the regime. But what happened in Libya has made them fear that
Qaddafi’s fate could be theirs, too, without an adequate deterrent. Indeed,
commenting on Qaddafi’s plight in 2011, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said,
“[T]his gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and
delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’ Look where we are, and in what
position they are now.”

But today, two years later, Iran must look again at where it is. As long as
crippling economic sanctions remain in place, the government will be unable to have
its yellowcake and eat it, too. Allowing Iran to retain some low-grade enrichment
capacity would be a plausible concession – and one that would allow the country’s
leaders to save face – but only if linked to Iran’s unfettered disclosure of all
nuclear activities to the IAEA and confirmed cessation of any capability that
contributes to weaponization. And, given the stakes, any international agreement
with Iran must come with an assured response to cheating, including military

With little leverage, Iran’s leaders would then have two options. They could follow
North Korea by sacrificing economic prosperity for nuclear breakout, and hope that
US and Israeli talk of “all options” being on the table to stop their efforts is a
bluff; or they could pursue economic prosperity by forgoing a nuclear-weapons
capacity, and hope that a Libya-style revolt does not envelope the country and doom
the regime to a fate like that of Qaddafi.

It is not an easy choice, but it is one that Iran’s leaders cannot postpone for much

Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under George
H. W. Bush, and is the author of several books on international security.

Project Syndicate, 2013.

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