Verification is key to keeping nuclear genie in the bottle

Verification is key to keeping nuclear genie in the bottle
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Nuclear blackmail keeps policymakers up at night. Both North Korea and Iran are now on the minds of western leaders, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE. The efforts to put North Korea on the path to denuclearization and to assure that Iran is not going to reverse engines if the U.S. withdraws from the nuclear accord are vital to U.S. national security interests.

Sunday’s comment by National Security Advisor John Bolton that Libyan denuclearization is an instructive historical model may backfire.  

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Specifically, John Bolton’s comment to Margaret Brennan on "Face the Nation," "We're looking at the Libya model of 2003,” sends a message to dictators and rogue regimes that they are better off with a loaded gun than with an olive branch.

For Kim Jong Un to visualize the gruesome public spectacle of Muammar Qaddafi’s death is hardly an incentive to lay down his arms. 

With May 12 as the deadline, French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel have made a full-court press for President Trump to stick with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal and then to negotiate a series of side agreements. All signers except the U.S. have weighed in to keep the Iran agreement. The U.N. secretary general said that the 2015 accord, codified in a U.N. Resolution, must be preserved.

Fair enough that Trump and Bolton have reservations about the Iran deal, but their messaging is not effective. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent presentation of new evidence, that Iran previously had a nuclear weapons development program, simply confirms what everyone knew. Needless to say, Iranian denials are not worth much. The real question is how to verify compliance with current commitments and commitments about to be negotiated. 

The international nuclear watchdog agency (IAEA) addressed the information presented by both Israel’s Prime Minister and the Trump administration on the new evidence of past possible military dimensions (PMD).

The statement, issued by Fredrik Dahl, the IAEA spokesman, said that activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.” But the IAEA maintains that there is “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.” 

And back in November, in an interview with the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, he told me that: 

“Iran is now subject to the world's most robust nuclear verification regime, and the IAEA has so far had access to all the locations it needed to visit in the country."  

There is a smart argument, in large part economic, to move away from nuclear programs with strict verification and financial upsides. In the case of Iran, it was lifting of the sanctions. And on North Korea, the last time there was an attempted deal, Pyongyang was promised 500,000 tons of fuel oil and two nuclear power reactors in exchange for halting their nuclear development.

North Korea claims that the oil and reactors were not delivered and they restarted their program — which came first is a matter of debate. One of the problems is that the Clinton administration negotiated the agreement and the incoming Bush administration did not like the deal. For his part, Amano said that the IAEA is ready to send a verification team to North Korea.

The nuclear watchdog agency says that they knew about past behavior of Iran but they confirm that Iran is compliant with the current deal. And, all eyes in North Korea are on the credibility of the U.S. in keeping the agreement. Amano has organized a team at the agency, ready to be on the ground in North Korea "on short notice" if there is a diplomatic resolution.

Amano’s predecessor, Hans Blix, said during a conversation with me when he visited the United Nations, that keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle has been an uphill battle. His conclusions, you will remember, were not heeded when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Whatever the Trump administration decides about both North Korea and Iran, the stakes are high. If Iran starts up its nuclear program, it now has more money – from the lifting of the sanctions – to do so.

The U.S. made the mistake before of not listening to the experts at the international watchdog agency. Listening to their expertise now is good policy.  

Should I stay or should I go?

To be clear, the president may decide before May 12 what to do about U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015.

The U.S. law, passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by President Obama, “The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” (INARA) requires “certification” or “decertification” of compliance, not anything to do with “ratification.” That is what Trump has already done by decertifying. Whether right or wrong, the White House did not deal with the Iran deal as a treaty requiring Senate ratification.

The president can kick the can down the road again by “decertifying” and still stay in the agreement. He can also say the U.S. is “getting out” of the agreement and later decide what to do about U.S. sanctions on those countries that stick with the accord. And, the U.N. Resolution, UNSC 2231, also has terms about termination of the agreement.

Today, with the Iran nuclear deal, it is not the risks but the stakes. Iran may or may not restart its nuclear weapons program, that is a risk that the White House may be willing to take. But the stakes are high. If Iran does start up its program, they could, in short order, develop nuclear weapons that threaten U.S. and global security and begin an arms race in the Middle East. 

Pamela Falk is a U.N. resident correspondent and CBS News TV & Radio foreign affairs analyst and is former staff director of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. She holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law. She can be reached at @PamelaFalk.