SEOUL – Critics of the deal to cap Iran’s nuclear program say it repeats mistakes made with North Korea, but proponents say there is little to suggest Tehran will follow its predecessor’s path of broken promises to a nuclear bomb.
Under the agreement sealed in Geneva on Sunday, Iran undertook to brake its nuclear drive for the next six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
Republican dissenters in the U.S. Congress warned that Iran was borrowing from North Korea’s well-worn playbook, buying time and financial largess with false promises that ultimately led to Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006.
On the surface, there are similarities that go beyond Iran and North Korea’s joint billing with Iraq in former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”
Albeit to varying degrees, both are autocratic, diplomatically isolated, sanctions-laden nations with a shared history of long-term enmity with the United States and a desire for nuclear leverage.
In North Korea’s case, a series of aid for denuclearization agreements have fallen apart over the past 20 years, and the country is openly developing weapons on all fronts. It conducted its third and so far and largest nuclear test in February.
But many analysts believe suggestions that Iran will inevitably follow the same path ignore key social, structural and geopolitical differences.
The core difference for Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California, is the “observable shift” in Iran’s government with the election in June of Hassan Rouhani as president. His reputation as a moderate and desire to move from confrontation to engagement, made the negotiated deal with Tehran worth risking, said Haggard.
“Nothing similar is visible in North Korea” he said.
Since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011, North Korea has enshrined its nuclear statehood in its constitution and vowed it will never negotiate its atomic weapons away.
Iran’s economic stake is also far greater than any taken by North Korea in its nuclear agreements — a fact that experts say should help bind Tehran to the terms of the Geneva deal.
“The cost and benefit decision presented to Tehran was and is very clear,” said Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund. “The North Korea security calculus is tilted the other way — it’s worth the pain to get a weapon. And also Iran lacks the kind of support the North has traditionally got from China, that allowed Pyongyang to feel, ‘This hurts, but Beijing has our back.’ “
Critics of the Geneva deal point to the 1994 Agreed Framework that then-President Bill Clinton signed with North Korea. At that time, the similarities with Iran were more striking. North Korea, like Iran now, had yet to conduct a nuclear test and was still a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The 1994 agreement eventually broke down amid mutual accusations of noncompliance, but nonproliferation experts say the Geneva accord — even as an interim deal — is stronger for its tough inspection regime.
“In the case of North Korea, the International Atomic Energy Agency had limited access to just one facility,” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. “Iran, by contrast, has committed to very intrusive inspections at a wider range of facilities across its entire nuclear landscape.”