Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last week, President Trump singled out two countries as “reckless regimes” engaged in “hostile behavior”: North Korea and Iran. His remarks echoed President George W. Bush’s invocation of an “axis of evil” including those same two countries. The connection is not absolutely right, but incredibly important.
Though it is tempting to believe that while our nonproliferation policies failed in North Korea, they are succeeding in Iran, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw. If anything, North Korea is a cautionary tale of what Iran’s future might hold.
Pyongyang and Tehran share an ambition to acquire nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And the international community has attempted to rein in both countries’ ambitions with diplomatic agreements. The failure of the North Korean deal, and the severe limitations imposed on U.S. policy by the nuclear capability it has gained since, heralds our ominous future with Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unless Tehran is moved off its Pyongyang-like trajectory.
Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear activities — particularly plutonium-producing heavy water reactors — in return for what amounted to bribes: fuel oil shipments and construction of two “proliferation resistant,” but not proliferation proof, light water nuclear reactors (LWRs).
Even with the Agreed Framework in place, however, North Korea developed an alternative pathway to the bomb: uranium enrichment. A Clinton administration official has admitted they knew this, but did little, if anything, to persuade it to return to compliance. The assumption of imminent regime collapse, due to difficult economic conditions and the challenges of leadership succession, abetted this complacency.
That hope never panned out. Instead, in 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence of its cheating, and North Korea responded by defiantly admitting its violation. This led the Bush administration to cut off fuel oil shipments, prompting Pyongyang to withdraw from the NPT, kick out international inspectors, and restart its Yongbyon reactor. Less than four years later, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon. Since then, the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities have advanced steadily — leading up to the recent ICBM tests and, supposedly, a miniaturized hydrogen bomb — as U.S. policy options narrowed.
The parallels between this history and the JCPOA are striking. Much as the Agreed Framework promised North Korea technology — LWRs — that could have ultimately aided its quest for a nuclear weapon, the JCPOA allows Iran, after the agreement sunsets, to build out its uranium enrichment program. And just as the Agreed Framework’s negotiators hoped for a political transformation in the DPRK, so too the JCPOA’s architects hoped that their deal would change Iran’s behavior. And like Pyongyang in the late 1990s, there are serious questions about Tehran’s compliance with its obligations.
The lesson for the Trump administration is equally clear: when dealing with a flawed nonproliferation agreement, there are serious risks associated with both leaving it in place, unenforced, and strictly enforcing it.
Under the JCPOA, within the next decade, Iran will be legally permitted to walk right up to the brink of nuclear weapons capability. This should be unacceptable to any U.S. administration. However, because of the lopsided terms of the deal, were it to be rescinded today, Iran would be able to achieve the same thing, rebuilding its nuclear program much faster than the United States could reestablish meaningful economic pressure to constrain Iranian behavior. Without a plan in place to quickly and forcefully exert leverage on Iran upon termination of the JCPOA, there is an unacceptable risk Tehran will sprint for a nuclear weapon, much like Pyongyang did.
Nevertheless, there are also significant differences. North Korea is uninterested in integration into the global economy or major international influence. By contrast, Iran both wants the economic benefits of international trade and simultaneously aspires to regional hegemony—projecting its power from Afghanistan to Lebanon.
Iran’s interest in global engagement is a double-edged sword for the United States. It makes economic sanctions a more effective tool against Tehran than Pyongyang. But it also means a nuclear Iran would be even more dangerous than North Korea. Tehran’s ability to coerce and destabilize its neighbors would grow exponentially with nuclear weapons capability.
The longer the JCPOA is in place and Iranian cheating is overlooked, and the closer Iran draws to a legitimized, unfettered nuclear program, the more constrained and fraught U.S. policy options will become. Preserving the widest latitude of action for the United States will require acting soon, but not acting precipitously. As North Korea showed, the collapse of a deal, without a contingency in place, can quickly lead to the very nuclear weapons proliferation we’re seeking to prevent.
In crafting a new Iran policy, the administration’s fundamental priority should be ensuring that Tehran is not able to go down the path blazed by Pyongyang.
VADM John Bird, USN (ret.), former commander of U.S. 7th Fleet, is a member of the board of advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Stephen Rademaker is a former assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation. Both are members of JINSA's Gemunder Center Iran Task Force.