August 16, 2022

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Iran nuclear talks: Is US following path that failed with North Korea?

In the months since talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal restarted, Tehran has announced crossing one technical milestone after another in its nuclear program and has continued racing toward … what exactly?

The answer to that question remains unclear. But for some nuclear proliferation experts, Tehran may at least be weighing the eventual need for a regime-change insurance policy that brings it to the brink of having a nuclear weapon.

Iran insists, as it has for years, that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes. And this month CIA Director William Burns said the United States still sees no signs that Tehran is weaponizing its program.

For many nuclear proliferation experts, Iran’s trumpeting of its nuclear production leaps is largely aimed at enhancing its position at the negotiating table, where it is seeking relief from sanctions that then-President Donald Trump imposed after pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018.

Iran’s achievements include mounting stockpiles of uranium enriched at purity levels much closer to those needed to fuel a nuclear bomb, and the installation of hundreds of increasingly sophisticated centrifuges designed to turn out that enriched uranium.

But what worries a growing number of nonproliferation analysts is how Iran’s unbridled nuclear program and the technical advances it has made since 2018 have brought it irretrievably closer to becoming a nuclear threshold state – meaning a state possessing all the physical elements and intellectual expertise needed to deliver a bomb on short notice.

Without a deal that reimposes limits on Iran’s program while bringing the U.S. back in and removing Trump-era sanctions, “bumping up on a weaponization threshold could become an attractive option for Iran,” says Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow with expertise in Iran and North Korea at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“If the diplomatic route fails,” she adds, “we shouldn’t rule out that some in Iran might want to move to a more advanced program as an insurance policy.”

Indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran resumed Nov. 29 in Vienna after a five-month hiatus. But no progress was made as the U.S. responded to Tehran’s maximalist demand for full sanctions removal by doubling down on the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of increasing sanctions.

The talks broke off suddenly last week when Iranian negotiators said they needed time to consult with their government. That left European powers leading the diplomatic effort to rescue the JCPOA, warning that only “weeks” remain to reach a deal before Iran’s fast-advancing nuclear program makes diplomacy moot. On Thursday it was announced that the talks would resume Dec. 27.

The North Korea precedent

The idea of nukes as an insurance policy does not originate with Iran, but rather goes back over more than a decade to ultimately failed U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. Regional experts say now that Pyongyang’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was a means of safeguarding the Kim regime from American destruction.

A key difference between North Korea and Iran, some analysts say, is that the Iranians have not decided to weaponize their nuclear program. But what worries some is that the U.S. is now employing an approach with Iran similar to the one it used with North Korea, yet expecting a different outcome.

“As far as comparing North Korea with Iran, one way we’re already there is in terms of thinking we can hound them out of their [nuclear] program,” says Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“In both cases the primary U.S. tool is sanctions, the thinking being that we can impose enough pain to compel them to do what we want,” he adds. “But instead, both North Korea and Iran decided the best response was to accelerate. In both cases, it’s been the complete failure of compellence and coercion.”

Not everyone would agree. Many experts assert, for example, that the harsh sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Iran early on were instrumental in getting Tehran to agree to the limits that the JCPOA imposed on its nuclear program.

But for others, that does not alter the fact that in the cases of both Iran and North Korea, the U.S. rejection of diplomatic agreements early on in the two countries’ nuclear programs only encouraged both to move forward.

“Let’s remember that we had an opportunity to strike a deal with Iran in 2003, when they had something like 300 centrifuges,” says Dr. Walsh. “But because the U.S. said, ‘We want zero centrifuges,’ the deal fell apart – and now they have 19,000 centrifuges and are … making noise about stockpiling [highly enriched uranium] at 60%.”

As for North Korea, Carnegie’s Ms. DiMaggio notes that the Clinton administration reached a framework agreement with Pyongyang aimed at nipping its nuclear program in the bud. “But then we had a presidential transition from Clinton to Bush, and the agreement was tossed out,” she adds, as the new administration decided the deal was essentially appeasement of North Korea.

Now Pyongyang is thought to be expanding its nuclear arsenal and perfecting missiles that could deliver those weapons.

Different regional context

Yet despite the similarities between the trajectories of North Korea and Iran, there are also key differences that could keep Iran from becoming a de facto nuclear power.

For one thing, Ms. DiMaggio cautions, the regional contexts of the two countries are very different. “North Korea did not have an Israel to contend with,” she says, referring to Iran’s committed arch-adversary. “In fact, if anything, they have a China that in some ways is their only but very important friend.”

Indeed, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, traveled to Israel this week to confer on Iran, at a time when the militaries of the two allies are discussing joint exercises to game out eventual operations striking at an Iranian nuclear program that’s gone too far.

For some, rumblings about such potential exercises are intended as much as anything to rattle Tehran into returning to the negotiating table – perhaps early next year – and to be more open to compromises to get the JCPOA back into effect.

And while Iran may be deepening relations with both China and Russia as a strategic counterweight, neither one is anything near the powerful friend that China is to North Korea.

A path back to mutual trust?

MIT’s Dr. Walsh says the next round of talks will be the now-or-never moment for both the U.S. and Iran to step away from “the new and devious ways both sides have found to push the other” and to move away from maximalist positions.

Because if the talks fail and Iran does opt to continue its march to the nuclear threshold, he says, there is no reason to believe military strikes would deter Tehran.

Instead, Iran might go for that insurance policy.

“Let’s say we do bomb them,” he says. “Then there’s a good chance they decide they’re a nuclear state and they build a bomb.”

To avoid that outcome, Ms. DiMaggio says the U.S. is going to have to dial back the maximum pressure campaign, while both the U.S. and Iran are going to have to muster a basic ingredient of successful diplomacy between adversaries – mutual trust.

Over the course of this year’s talks, “we’ve been sinking into a deep morass of distrust,” she says. “Reversing that before it becomes entrenched is vital.”

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