A nuclear-deal test

Days after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal on July 14th, Secretary of State John Kerry reported that the deal’s framework grew out of “the failure of the North Korea experience.” He was referring to the 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea. At that time President Bill Clinton announced that the deal would freeze the North Korean nuclear program. But eight years later, in 2002, the agreement crumbled when North Korea was found to have been running a secret nuclear weapons program. In 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test and since then has continued to build a nuclear arsenal.

While the Iran deal contains many more details than the North Korea agreement, early expressions of confidence about each are strikingly similar. Numerous statements by Clinton in 1994 and by Obama in 2015 are interchangeable. To demonstrate the point I invite the reader to take a test. Guess which president made each of the following statements. (Answers are listed at the end of this article.)

  1. Today, after 16 months of intense and difficult negotiations [with this country] we have completed an agreement that will make the United States, the [region], and the world safer.
  2. After two years of negotiations, we have achieved a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits [this country] from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
  3. It does not rely on trust. Compliance will be certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  4. The world agreed with us, that it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if [this country] possessed a nuclear weapon.
  5. It’s not enough for us to trust when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program. You have to prove it to us.
  6. Throughout this administration, the fight against the spread of nuclear weapons has been among our most important international priorities.
  7. If we can in fact resolve some of these differences, without resort to force, that will be a lot better for us and the people of that region.
  8. Today all Americans should know that as a result of this achievement [i.e. nuclear agreement] our Nation will be safer and the future of our people more secure.

The likelihood of several mismatches by those who take the test underscores the interchangeability between the two advocacy positions. The statements also show that Clinton and his negotiating team were sure they had achieved a successful milestone just as Obama and his team are confident of their achievement. The statements display passionate certitude by both presidents about the wisdom and efficacy of their deals. Finally, both deals also rely on the IAEA for verification of compliance. A major difference, however, has been the manner that the agreements have been perceived by others. The North Korea agreement generated little public opposition while the Iran deal faces considerable domestic skepticism. A recent Pew poll indicates that twice as many American respondents oppose the Iran deal as those who support it.

Misplaced presidential optimism about the earlier deal led to terrible consequences. Which raises a key question. Shouldn’t that experience impel the Obama administration to close the gaps in the current deal before extolling its virtues? If they cannot do better, shouldn’t they heed the wisdom already expressed by many administration officials: a bad deal is worse than no deal.

A few examples of the faults in the current agreement validate the skeptics’ concerns:

  • Inspectors will have quick access only to previously declared Iranian nuclear facilities. For other suspect locations, arrangements to inspect could take 24 days or longer. This is plenty of time for Iran to hide some illicit nuclear activities.
  • An agreement between Iran and the IAEA reportedly would permit Iran to provide suspect soil samples to the IAEA. Critics claim this allows Iran to tamper with the sample. Further, the administration claims the IAEA-Iran agreement cannot be viewed by congressional or other US officials.
  • The nuclear deal allows for sanctions relief that will provide Iran between $50 billion and $150 billion. The administration acknowledges that some of the money will be used by Iran to further its terrorist activities against the US and others.

Congress is expected to vote on the deal in mid-September. But the administration has already dispatched a remarkable number of officials to advocate strenuously for its acceptance. The Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy, the Treasury, the lead US negotiator for the deal, and others have testified repeatedly before congressional committees. The president and vice president have made speeches, invited groups to the White House, and addressed listeners in conference calls.

In his zeal to convince, Secretary Kerry has even offered a scarcely believable personal guarantee. If the Iranians move to make a nuclear bomb, he said, “I absolutely guarantee that we can still stop them.” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz promises that the agreement will stand “forever.”

Their overreach was surpassed by Wendy Sherman, the lead US negotiator for the Iran deal. Sherman also had overseen negotiations for the North Korea agreement. In contrast to Kerry’s acknowledged failure of that agreement, she still defends it because “during the Clinton administration not one ounce of plutonium was added to the North Korean stockpile.”

By that measure, the current deal could be deemed successful even if Iran were found to be secretly developing nuclear weapons some time after the deal enters into effect. Neither such reasoning nor the hyperbolic assurances by administration officials are comforting. ……………………..

Answers to the Exercise: Statements by Clinton were numbers 1, 3, 6, 8; by Obama, numbers 2, 4, 5, 7.


About the Author
Leonard Cole is an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, USA, and of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where he is the Director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security.
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