Through its publications, INSS aims to provide expert insights, cutting-edge research, and innovative solutions that contribute to shaping the national security discourse and preparing the next generation of leaders in the field.



News | Sept. 1, 2010

Redefining Success: Applying Lessons in Nuclear Diplomacy from North Korea to Iran

By Ferial Ara Saeed Strategic Perspectives 1


Executive Summary

The United States has no good options for resolving the North Korean and Iranian nuclear challenges. Incentives, pressures, and threats have not succeeded. A military strike would temporarily set back these programs, but at unacceptable human and diplomatic costs, and with a high risk of their reconstitution and acceleration. For some policymakers, therefore, the best option is to isolate these regimes until they collapse or pressures build to compel negotiations on U.S. terms. This option has the veneer of toughness sufficient to make it politically defensible in Washington. On closer scrutiny, however, it actually allows North Korea and Iran to continue their nuclear programs unrestrained. It also sacrifices more achievable short-term goals of improving transparency and securing vulnerable nuclear materials to the uncertain long-term goal of denuclearization. Yet these short-term goals are deemed critical to U.S. national security in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).

North Korea and Iran are very different states that share at least one crucial similarity: decades of estrangement from Washington and U.S. efforts to isolate them from the international community. They also play destabilizing roles in the regions they inhabit, lack respect for basic democratic freedoms, and maintain policies antagonistic to the United States, its friends, and its allies. It is hardly surprising that the Washington consensus still supports isolation. What is striking, however, is the pronounced international consensus in favor of engagement, which sharply constrains an already limited U.S. policy arsenal.

Assessing two decades of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and nearly a decade of efforts with Iran, it is clear that Washington needs a more promising strategy. Nothing short of a paradigm shift away from denuclearization is required to alter the pattern of bad outcomes in both cases. The new paradigm, predicated on strong bipartisan support, would recognize the national security advantages of a negotiated nuclear pause as a prelude to denuclearization. Allowing North Korea and Iran to retain their current nuclear capability would give them an important incentive to cooperate with international monitoring aimed at improving the transparency of their nuclear programs and capabilities, and securing vulnerable nuclear materials—the goals identified by the NPR and QDR as vital to national security.

Denuclearization would remain the publicly declared—and indeed desired—endstate of negotiations, but an outcome requiring a long time horizon to achieve. In the meantime, a nuclear pause diminishes the risk of further nuclear advances by these states and brings North Korea and Iran “inside the tent” through international monitoring. It also buys time to develop new policy mechanisms to further contain their programs. More crucially, it could open up political space in both states for moderation overall, including accommodation (vice defiance) of international demands, especially on the nuclear issue.

Negotiating a nuclear pause will not be easy. Washington has misunderstood the complex and often paradoxical effect of its efforts to isolate North Korea and Iran on decisionmaking in the two states. Because their bilateral and international relationships remain captive to U.S. intervention and veto, protecting these relationships has not been an important determinant of North Korean and Iranian strategy and tactics. They have instead relied on assessments of the entire policy context—the political, economic, and security conditions prevailing at home, in the regions they inhabit, and in the international arena. North Korea and Iran also based strategic decisions on lessons learned when nuclear agreements failed to meet their expectations. As a result, they came to see their nuclear programs as vital assets to deter efforts at regime change; improve bargaining leverage in negotiations; and attain political credibility with the United States sufficient to oblige some accommodation of their interests.

This comparative study of U.S. nuclear diplomacy toward North Korea and Iran suggests that the North Korea case offers policymakers crucial lessons applicable to Iran. It provides policy recommendations based on four key conclusions: that a common paradigm (nuclear pause) must be applied to both states; that nuclear deals negotiated with international outliers like North Korea and Iran must draw on widely accepted policy or practice; that these deals should be linked to political/diplomatic strategies relevant to the domestic and regional policy context of each state; and that the success of a nuclear pause must be judged by whether it accomplishes nuclear policy goals, not broader policy goals. Time is of the essence. North Korea’s leadership transition could prove destabilizing to the region, and Iran’s enrichment capability is steadily advancing.

In the case of North Korea, this paper recommends that the United States develop the following: (1) a political/diplomatic strategy to cope with North Korean leadership transition; (2) procedures for coordinating responses with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to a succession that could spin out of control; and (3) with the concurrence of South Korea and Japan, a strategy of nuclear pause that caps the North Korean arsenal under international oversight and conditions humanitarian aid on economic progress.

In the case of Iran, this paper recommends two approaches: (1) a nuclear pause allowing limited uranium enrichment in Iran under international oversight, and nuclear safety cooperation with regional participation; and (2) pragmatic containment of Iran that links the prospect of improved relations to Iranian support for U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and to establish a strategic partnership with Pakistan. 

At the end of the day, a nuclear pause will not solve the strategic dilemmas posed by North Korea and Iran, nor will it eliminate continued confrontation with both states. It will, however, afford better management of the nuclear challenges they present. A nuclear pause also has the potential to alter the policy context in which the two nuclear standoffs play out and to shift the political balance in North Korea and Iran in favor of moderation over defiance. This could pay dividends in many areas and potentially create the conditions necessary to move from a nuclear pause to denuclearization.