Iran, North Korea, and the Congress that Says No
Negotiators are rushing to meet an end-of-March deadline to reach a nuclear framework deal with Iran. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are willing to lift economic sanctions as long as Iran agrees to substantially curb its nuclear program for at least 10 years. A few significant gaps—notably on proposed caps on Iran’s research and development activities, the duration of the agreement, and the speed with which sanctions will be lifted—reportedly separate the two sides. But cautious optimism that a deal will be sealed surrounds the talks.
If indeed the deal survives the scrutiny of all the governments concerned, it will have an impact beyond the specific issue of nuclear proliferation. Washington and Tehran could use the agreement as a foundation for the gradual reestablishment of bilateral ties. Rumors abounded in November 2014 of secret meetings to discuss the possible opening of a U.S. trade office in Iran following a nuclear agreement.
A deal could also pave the way for greater regional cooperation (which is already under way informally in the fight against the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq and Syria). And a landmark accord would also signal Iran’s reentry into the international community after several decades as a pariah state.
One of the main obstacles to this virtuous circle of diplomacy is the U.S. Congress. With the Republican Party now in charge of both chambers, congressional hardliners have done their best to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts, from the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to the letter signed by 47 Republican senators to Iranian leaders to remind them that Congress or a new president can shoot down an agreement at any time.
Long-time Capitol Hill watchers should be struck with déjà vu at this point. The United States and North Korea were in a similar situation in 1994 when the Clinton administration was negotiating the Agreed Framework despite significant congressional skepticism. The challenge for the Obama administration is not only to secure an agreement with Iran—with assistance and occasional pushback from European allies like France—but to avoid the fate of the Agreed Framework. That accord failed to prepare for a breakthrough in bilateral relations or prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It has cast a long shadow over the current negotiations as well as other non-proliferation efforts.
Dealing with Pyongyang and Congress
The Agreed Framework averted a major crisis precipitated by North Korea’s announced departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Negotiated over the summer of 1994, the deal froze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for two light-water reactors, shipments of heavy fuel oil, and a pledge to pursue full political and economic normalization.
It was a major sign of rapprochement between the longest-running adversaries of the Cold War. Not only did the Agreed Framework prevent an imminent war, it promised to open up a new era in U.S.-North Korean relations. Optimists hoped that the agreement would pave the way to solving some of the most persistent problems in the region, including the most challenging issue of all, the division of the Korean peninsula.
Even though the Clinton administration had to be dragged involuntarily to the negotiating table—after Jimmy Carter’s trip to Pyongyang at the height of the crisis produced the kernel of a compromise—Bill Clinton was sufficiently invested in the agreement to push Congress to approve the funds necessary to build the light-water reactors and send the heavy fuel oil. Congressional hardliners, however, were skeptical about the whole process of engaging North Korea.
And then came the 1994 mid-term elections. Bill Clinton had entered the White House with a Democratic Party majority in both the House and Senate. Two years later, in 1994, the Democrats lost control of both chambers. It was a devastating political reversal.
The 1994 elections effectively orphaned the Agreed Framework. For the next eight years, Congress resisted adhering to the deal, not only rhetorically but where it counted most: appropriations. First, it made the administration scramble to get the funds necessary to send the promised heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea, which often produced delays that angered Pyongyang. Second, Congress cut the money available for the construction of the two light-water reactors, ensuring that the project would never get much beyond a big hole in the ground.
In an atmosphere of growing mistrust – not only between the United States and North Korea, but also between the Clinton administration and Congress – the larger goals of political and economic normalization were forgotten. For its part, North Korea began a secret program to acquire a nuclear weapon through a second path, uranium enrichment.
The Clinton administration had sold the Agreed Framework to Congress by quietly assuring key members that North Korea would collapse before any light-water reactors could be built. And, although North Korea didn’t collapse, the Agreed Framework did.
Will this history of bungled rapprochement repeat with Iran? After all, Congress is again playing hardball and doing whatever it can to undercut any forthcoming agreement with Iran. As in 1994, congressional hawks both doubt the intentions of the adversary and simply want the administration to fail. The shift in political control of the House in 2014 may orphan any Iranian agreement just as the 1994 elections effectively doomed the Agreed Framework.
Fortunately, there are several important differences between the examples of Iran and North Korea. The Agreed Framework hinged on the construction of light-water reactors, a project that required considerable funding that Congress could control with relative ease. The current agreement with Iran, on the other hand, does not require any congressional action, at least in the short run. (The president can waive certain key unilateral sanctions on his own under current law; lifting others will require eventual congressional approval.)
But Congress is only one player in the sanctions game. The UN Security Council imposed a multilateral sanctions regime that it can decide to lift, while the European Union (EU) can do the same with its own, more stringent set of unilateral sanctions. Congress may well be outmaneuvered, and this fear has motivated some members to dig in their heels.
The key question that hardliners bring up time and again is the potential for Iran to cheat. Didn’t North Korea give lip service to the Agreed Framework even as it pursued a second path to a bomb?
First of all, the inspections regime that Iran has already accepted is more intrusive than anything North Korea permitted. Second, the agreement under consideration would be more comprehensive than the Agreed Framework. Third, North Korea possesses a single trump card in its dealings with its adversaries, and it has been extremely reluctant to trade away that card. Iran, on the other hand, could give up on a nuclear deterrent because it has considerable conventional firepower, more in fact than North Korea, as well as a number of ways of interacting successfully with the international community. Indeed, Iran, with its abundant energy resources, its geo-strategic location, and its well-educated population is already much better positioned to take advantage of full reintegration with the global economy.
These differences underscore another key disparity between North Korea and Iran: the latter is a far more politically heterogeneous place than the former. There was never much expectation that the Agreed Framework would embolden political reformers inside North Korea because no one had ever been able to identify such a faction inside the regime. Iran, on the other hand, has much clearer political divisions, and a nuclear agreement could very well play an important role in the country’s liberalization, thus enhancing the chances for the kind of political and economic normalization with the United States that was so lacking in the North Korean example. Such normalization could ensure that Iran sticks to the terms of the agreement, for otherwise it would have to much to lose.
Finally, North Korea and the United States had very few overlapping interests in 1994 apart from a more-or-less shared preference for diplomacy over war. Iran and the United States, on the other hand, are both focused on the threat of Sunni extremism – in the form of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other formations. Both countries also want to see a stable Afghanistan. And then there are the commercial interests that drive U.S. and Iranian business interests. Iran is a far more attractive trading partner and location for U.S. investment than North Korea ever was.
These practical considerations – around sanctions, reform inside Iran, and intersecting geopolitical and economic interests – suggest that the current nuclear negotiations have a much better chance of successful implementation than the Agreed Framework did in 1994. But this assumes, from the standpoint of Congress, that Republican hardliners are susceptible to arguments based on pragmatism. Their recent actions, from the Netanyahu visit to the letter of the 47 senators, suggest otherwise. The challenge for the Obama administration is to create sufficient momentum for rapprochement with Iran that even a Congress inclined to say no will eventually have no choice but to say yes.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.