Two Nuclear Deals, Two Countries, Three Decades Apart

Does the failed nuclear agreement with North Korea have lessons for the Iran deal?

President Clinton waves
Eriko Sugita / Reuters

President Trump is expected this week to decline to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal’s supporters have warned that such a move could eventually prompt Iran to abandon the multilateral agreement and continue work on its nuclear program, which was frozen under the pact.

The U.S. has been in a similar spot before: In 1994, the Clinton administration signed the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program. The Bush administration withdrew from the deal after accusing North Korea of cheating on its obligations. After that, North Korea restarted a nuclear-weapons program that, according to various estimates, has now yielded between 20 and 60 bombs; the country is close to fitting a miniaturized nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the contiguous United States.

The ultimate failure of the Agreed Framework is cited by both critics and supporters of the Iran deal to bolster their case for why the U.S. should leave, or remain in, the JCPOA. Critics of the JCPOA say it is as flawed a deal as the Agreed Framework, and that neither Iran nor North Korea can be trusted to keep its word. Supporters of the Iran deal concede it is flawed but argue that in the short term it achieves its objective of freezing Iran’s nuclear program. According to this line of argument, moreover, maintaining the Agreed Framework with North Korea would have left Pyongyang with much less advanced weapons capabilities today—and conversely, the Trump administration’s approach to the JCPOA could persuade Iran to follow the blueprint laid out by North Korea.

On the face of it, the two agreements have much in common. Each focused exclusively on the nuclear activities of a country whose other problematic behavior was not part of the deal. They froze the programs in exchange for economic and other incentives. And, says William Perry, the Clinton-era defense secretary who is now an advocate for nuclear disarmament and who helped negotiate the Agreed Framework, both agreements were “designed to head off a future nuclear catastrophe.”

“They both were agreements designed to head off [North Korea and Iran] … from building a nuclear weapon, which we believed would cause enormous difficulties for the United States,” Perry told me, adding: “If we keep them from doing that, this is a way of heading off that difficulty.”

But there are significant differences as well. For one, the Agreed Framework was a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement that also involves China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union. (The other signatories, including Iran, say they will remain in the deal and are urging the U.S. to stay.) Second, as Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, and Newell Highsmith, a former State Department official, wrote in April for the Brookings Institution, Iran is not North Korea. It doesn’t have nuclear weapons. At the time the Agreed Framework was concluded, North Korea was believed to possess enough plutonium for at least one bomb. Tehran, Nephew and Highsmith argued, has greater incentive to cooperate with the JCPOA because it “is not the isolated ... country that North Korea is. Iran’s economy needs markets for oil exports, and depends on imports of commercial and industrial goods.”

The JCPOA is also a much more comprehensive deal than the Agreed Framework, with more intense monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance, and clear consequences, in the form of renewed sanctions, for cheating. Additionally, under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to indefinite compliance with the additional protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a move that opens up even its military facilities for international inspection. The Agreed Framework did not have such safeguards in place, which can partly explain why its critics call it a failure (though nonproliferation experts such as Jeffrey Lewis make a strong argument for why that’s not the case).

Ultimately, the U.S. withdrew from the Agreed Framework citing instances of North Korean cheating—though the U.S. also failed to fulfill some terms of the deal before withdrawing. U.S. partners in the JCPOA argue that while Iran’s regional activities are a problem, Tehran’s compliance with the agreement has been verified multiple times by rigorous international inspections. As Perry put it, if Trump takes the first step to pull out of the JCPOA, “quite aside from the international diplomatic problem of having the United States make an international agreement in good faith and then, without any apparent reason, back out of it a year or two later … the second problem is [that] … as we pull out of it, it allows … Iran [to] go ahead with a nuclear program.”

He added: “Every agreement doesn't cover all problems we have. … Because we cannot solve all problems doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve some problems. Of the problems we have with Iran, in my judgment, the nuclear problem is the most serious.”

That’s also true of North Korea today. The Trump administration—if not the president—is hoping to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs through diplomacy. Defenders of the Iran deal point out that taking a step that could ultimately spell the JCPOA’s demise would send a bad signal to North Korea: that the U.S. cannot be trusted to keep its word. But Perry, who negotiated closely with his North Korean counterparts in the 1990s, said he wasn’t persuaded by that argument because “North Korea in many ways is an enigma.”

“I think they are careful observers of what's going on in other countries, for sure,” he said. “But I do believe they have a different calculus for how they make their diplomatic decisions, which may or may not involve their reflection on what’s happening with other agreements.”