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Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Not the North Korea Deal?

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George Perkovich


As negotiations and debate proceed over a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, comparisons will inevitably be made with the 1994 Agreed Framework that sought to end North Korea’s (the DPRK’s) nuclear weapons program. That earlier agreement failed due to a combination of factors. Many observers assert that a comprehensive agreement with Iran that will potentially be finalized in summer 2015 will also fail to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

 To analyze this assertion and identify potential ways to avoid its validation in the coming months and years, it is worthwhile to explore the differences and similarities between the two cases.

Iran and the DPRK—as countries—do share some attributes, including a pattern of violating international norms regarding nonproliferation, terrorism, and human rights. The agreements are also similar in certain ways. Like the Agreed Framework, the prospective arrangement with Iran will reward bad behavior to a degree. And animosity between the executive and legislative branches greatly complicates the prospect that the United States will live up to its side of an agreement with Iran. The U.S. Congress could take actions that could lead to Iranian brinksmanship within the nuclear domain as well as crises between the United States and its international partners. In the case of the DPRK, a similar combination of factors interrupted the United States’ fulfillment of terms and contributed to a series of minicrises.

But the two states and their societies differ in important ways, as do the Agreed Framework and the proposed deal with Iran. These differences combine to create much stronger incentives for Iran to fulfill a nuclear deal than existed for the DPRK. For instance, a final agreement with Iran will be vastly more comprehensive in its terms and verification provisions. Negotiated and backed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and codified in a Security Council resolution, the Iran deal will, if completed, contain much stronger elements to deter cheating and more meaningful incentives to motivate compliance than the Agreed Framework did.

The list of differences and similarities offered below is by no means exhaustive, and other analysts are invited to improve upon it. The hope is that this exercise will help develop feasible proposals to increase the probability that an agreement with Iran will yield a better result than the 1994 agreement with the DPRK did.

Nuclear Text and Context

Difference: Iran does not yet have sufficient fissile material for one or more nuclear weapons.

Before the Agreed Framework was completed in October 1994, the DPRK was estimated to have already produced more than enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon. By contrast, neither the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor any intelligence agency has offered evidence that Iran has acquired enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Therefore, Iran cannot hide behind a putative agreement and weaponize material it already possesses. Instead, Iran would face a much graver risk of having to violate a comprehensive agreement, defeat the verification arrangements imposed on it and the intensive monitoring by intelligence agencies, acquire sufficient fissile material, and manufacture nuclear weapons—all before military action could be taken to stop it.

Difference: The proposed deal with Iran explicitly addresses all pathways to the bomb.

The Agreed Framework focused specifically on the DPRK’s plutonium program. The framework also reaffirmed the DPRK’s broader commitment not to seek nuclear weapons by any means, pursuant to the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As it turned out, the DPRK secretly imported uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan and developed a parallel route for acquiring weapons-usable fissile material.

The proposed agreement with Iran explicitly covers both the uranium and plutonium pathways to acquiring nuclear weapons, and includes extensive measures to verify that declared and undeclared pathways would be blocked.

Difference: A comprehensive agreement with Iran will be extensively detailed.

The Agreed Framework was only four pages long and omitted many important details. It specified three steps that the two sides would take to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” and was relatively vague in describing them. For example, it declared that “within three months of the date of this document, both sides will reduce barriers to trade and investment, including restrictions on telecommunications services and financial transactions.” Little was done by either side on this score.

The parties negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Iran envision a much more focused and detailed document that does not call for full normalization. These details will address not only the parameters of activities that Iran may and may not undertake but also verification, dispute handling, and consequences of nonperformance. This should bolster all parties’ confidence that everyone knows what is required of them, that failures to fulfill terms will be detected quickly, that ambiguous behavior will be addressed through agreed procedures, and that nonfulfillment of terms will have consequences. All of this creates incentives for all parties not to renege.

Similarity: The proposed deal with Iran will reward bad behavior.

The DPRK broke commitments it made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), among other things by illicitly separating plutonium. Yet, rather than being, at a minimum, compelled to comply with its nonproliferation obligations, the DPRK resisted and ultimately drew the United States into a negotiation. In return for promising to reverse its violation of prior commitments and fully respecting its obligations as a non-nuclear-weapon state, the DPRK obtained a free supply of heavy oil, commitments to build two light-water nuclear reactors, and promises to remove economic sanctions and normalize relations.

Like North Korea, Iran was caught violating its safeguards obligations under the NPT. And, as with North Korea, Iran from 2003 onward steadfastly resisted efforts by the IAEA, by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, and, eventually, by the UN Security Council to compel it to just comply with its NPT obligations and successive IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions. Therefore, the compliance framework gradually gave way to a negotiation framework in which Iran is offered benefits in return for agreeing to take measures to build international confidence that it will not acquire nuclear weapons and will provide the information the IAEA needs to conclude that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. As a result, under the reported terms of a prospective comprehensive agreement, Iran will retain a uranium enrichment program that can be seen as a reward for bad behavior.

Similarity: The Iranian regime will not disappear more rapidly than the time it would take Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons if unconstrained.

Opponents of deals that provide benefits to regimes like those in the DPRK and Iran intensely prefer efforts to remove these regimes. But, if the United States lacks the means to directly or indirectly cause the collapse of the Iranian theocracy before that theocracy, if left unconstrained, could conceivably acquire nuclear weapons, then regime change is not a viable alternative way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it attempts to do so.

Difference: A comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran will not call for full normalization of relations with the United States.

Many issues beyond the DPRK’s nuclear program stood in the way of the full normalization of relations called for in the Agreed Framework. So if either party did not move as the other wished on the whole range of normalization issues, the other party could accuse it of violating the agreement, thereby reducing pressure to fulfill the core nuclear provisions.

The supreme leader of Iran says he opposes and does not seek a normalization of relations with the United States. For its part, the U.S. government says it will maintain sanctions on Iran over its support of terrorist organizations and its violation of human rights.

The narrow focus of the nuclear agreement being pursued is clear. Such a focus bounds and specifies the actions necessary to implement a deal with Iran. This makes monitoring compliance more straightforward, and it could and should insulate a nuclear agreement from other issues over which the two states will continue to compete and frustrate each other.

Monitoring and Verification

Difference: The verification that is envisioned with Iran would be extensive in its scope and intensity.

The Agreed Framework contained no specific verification procedures beyond saying that the DPRK would “provide full cooperation” in allowing the IAEA “to monitor” the freeze on activities related to the DPRK’s graphite-moderated reactor, and that “before delivery of key nuclear components” of the replacement light-water reactors, the DPRK would “come into full compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.”

The proposed arrangement with Iran would allow international monitoring of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities from cradle to grave, as it were. The IAEA would verify activities at uranium mines and mills, all facilities involved in producing and storing centrifuge rotors, and all centrifuge assembly facilities. The proposed arrangement affirms that the IAEA would monitor the only site where enrichment will be permitted—Natanz—and also the research and development site at Fordo. Verification of activities at such an early stage in the fuel cycle would create an important precedent for other non-nuclear-weapons states that might wish to undertake enrichment in the future.

The United States has also said that Iran would establish and allow the monitoring of a dedicated procurement channel for “the supply, sale, or transfer to Iran of certain nuclear-related and dual use materials and technology.” Much will depend on the details, but if Iran agrees to limit the procurement of sensitive items to a declared and monitored channel, this would mean that any attempts to procure such items by other means would violate the agreement. Such a mechanism would significantly reduce the risk that Iran would conduct undeclared nuclear activities, because the danger of being detected doing so would be greater than ever.

Difference: Iran would be subjected to greatly enhanced U.S. intelligence capabilities, including cyberintelligence and overhead.

Basic technical capabilities to detect violations of commitments like those Iran would make under a comprehensive nuclear deal have improved significantly since 1994. This augments the deterrence of cheating, including by heightening the probability that such cheating could be detected in time to allow military interdiction.

Moreover, the proposed agreement to monitor the entire supply of specified materials and technology going to Iran and to limit Iran’s procurement to a declared channel eases the burden of verification and intelligence gathering and assessment. Any procurement that was detected outside the monitored supply chain and declared channel would presumably be deemed a violation of the agreement. Unlike today, intelligence analysts and policymakers would not have to debate whether a detected activity actually signifies a violation of the NPT or of any other international nonproliferation norm or guideline.

Difference: Iran has been penetrated by intelligence agents working for Israel and perhaps the United States.

Human sources informed the 2002 revelation that Iran was conducting undeclared nuclear projects at Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak. So, too, information on Iranian activities with possible military dimensions was acquired by human sources. The conduct of the Stuxnet cyberoperation against Iran’s centrifuge program also appears to have been abetted by human sources. These and perhaps other examples raise the prospect that violations of an agreement would be detected, enhancing the deterrent against cheating.

Open sources do not indicate that the DPRK was similarly vulnerable to such intelligence penetration.

Similarity: Iran will resist providing the IAEA with the transparency and cooperation sufficient to answer questions about past nuclear activities.

To bring the DPRK into compliance with its NPT obligations and to assess whether and to what extent the country had conducted undeclared nuclear activities, the IAEA insisted that the DPRK provide access to sites, equipment, material, and personnel of interest. The DPRK resisted.

A tension emerged, then, over efforts to persuade the DPRK to accept limits on future activities as distinct from efforts to assess its past actions. The IAEA and protectors of its global role in the nuclear order insisted that the agency’s demands not be set aside. U.S. officials and others who were more focused on the interest of averting war and winning DPRK assent to limit its future activities were willing to put off the issues of the past for future resolution, without the involvement of the IAEA.

The IAEA is determined to gain Iranian cooperation in providing transparency and information necessary to assess past Iranian activities with possible military dimensions. The agency needs to resolve questions about these past activities to reach a conclusion that there are no undeclared nuclear activities in Iran and that the country’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Without this broader conclusion, the agency cannot say that Iran has returned to good standing. Moreover, an understanding of what Iran did in the past will inform efforts to monitor and verify that its future activities are declared and wholly peaceful.

Iran has not adequately cooperated with the IAEA’s investigation of activities with possible military dimensions. Tehran may seek to focus a comprehensive agreement on its future activities and leave the past to the past. If, at any point in the ongoing negotiations or after an agreement is reached and in the process of implementation, Iran were to threaten to end its overall cooperation rather than meet the IAEA’s demands, a crisis could emerge. Some states within the P5+1 and in the region could insist that no deal is worthy of full implementation if the IAEA’s requirements are not met. Others could argue that the past is not as important as the future, and that the issue should not be allowed to blow up what is otherwise a promising arrangement.

Deterrent Factors

Difference: A final agreement with Iran would presumably be codified in a UN Security Council resolution.

As a bilateral agreement, the Agreed Framework was not an undertaking of the UN Security Council.

A comprehensive agreement with Iran would be codified in a legally binding UN Security Council resolution, the violation of which would, among other things, be a threat to international peace and security. This increases the risks that Iran would face in violating the agreement. Unlike existing Security Council resolutions that Tehran says were illegally imposed on it by others, Iran would be consenting to a resolution that endorses a nuclear agreement.

The Security Council’s role in international relations would be gravely challenged if the council were to allow a violation to result in Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, even if the Security Council were not unanimous in agreeing on the actions that should be taken to enforce compliance, a demonstrable violation would significantly buttress the legal and political authority of the United States and of other Security Council members to take whatever action would be necessary to redress such a violation.

Difference: The P5+1 are unified in wanting to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and have worked in harness to achieve this outcome diplomatically.

The negotiations that produced the 1994 Agreed Framework were conducted by the United States and the DPRK alone. The other permanent members of the UN Security Council were not invested in it and in its enforcement.

The P5+1 perceive major national and collective interests in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and in upholding the NPT. Each of these states has invested national prestige in demonstrating that their collective effort can abate a threat to international peace and security. They have made this clear in a number of ways, including by authorizing and enforcing an unprecedented array of economic sanctions on Iran. The intensity of these states’ support for sanctions has varied, and the P5+1—particularly Russia—may have different priorities in dealing with Iran if and when the nuclear case is resolved. But there is reason to believe that they all are prepared to hold Iran to account for fulfilling the terms of an agreement.

Difference: In response to a U.S. military attack, Iran could not immediately cause massive military destruction of major cities in countries that are U.S. partners.

The DPRK had massive artillery capabilities that could gravely damage Seoul in the event of a U.S. military attack on North Korean nuclear facilities. To be sure, Iran could sustain asymmetric warfare in many locations for a long time, which gives it some means of deterring a military attack against its nuclear facilities. But Iran lacks conventional military means to retaliate effectively and massively against Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel, or against U.S. forces in the region. This further augments deterrence of an Iranian race to nuclear weapons, either by cheating on an agreement or after it expires.

In a scenario in which Iran violated an agreement with the UN Security Council and the broader international community and was racing to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States, France, and Gulf Cooperation Council partners, plus Israel, could be expected to undertake punitive military action against Iran and to counter potential retaliatory actions by the country. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Israel have for years indicated that they would welcome U.S. attacks on Iran.

This is a very different scenario from the one that North Korea faced. Then, China and South Korea both steadfastly opposed military action.

The credibility of U.S.-led military action to stop an Iranian move to produce nuclear weapons is significantly greater than the credibility of attacking Iran over enrichment per se. Similarly, the credibility of a military attack in response to a violation of a detailed, comprehensive nuclear agreement signed by Iran is greater than the credibility of military action to prevent further enrichment, which Iran and other states claim a right to pursue.

Difference: Iranian leaders fear nuclear proliferation by their neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, and believe that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would greatly enhance the probability that Saudi Arabia would follow suit, perhaps with U.S. complicity.

By almost all measures of national power, Iran is significantly ahead of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Arab states. It is these states, and the Sunni-Shia tensions that accompany Iran’s relations with them, that provide the greatest enduring challenge to Iran’s security.

Nuclear weapons may be the only means by which Saudi Arabia could equalize Iran’s overall power. Iranian leaders, particularly President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, recognize this. In private conversations, when they list reasons why it is not in Iran’s interest to transform its nuclear potential into actual nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders cite the risk of stimulating nuclear proliferation by their neighbors as number one.

The DPRK did not have such concerns. The U.S. nuclear guarantees that were extended to South Korea and Japan mitigated the risks that these states would seek their own nuclear weapons in response to the DPRK.

Incentives to Cooperate

Difference: Iran will not be required to roll back all of the capability it has acquired to produce and separate plutonium.

The Agreed Framework’s specific measures and general aim were to render the DPRK without capabilities that could be mobilized to produce nuclear weapons.

Seen from a technical nonproliferation angle, the key difference is that the proposed arrangement with Iran would leave it with more potential to produce nuclear weapons than the Agreed Framework was supposed to leave the DPRK.

Seen from a political-strategic angle, if the DPRK had implemented the Agreed Framework, North Korea would have been left with no latent nuclear capability to deter adversaries from intervening against it, and little leverage to compel other actors to meet its economic and strategic needs. By contrast, the proposed arrangement with Tehran, if fully implemented, would still leave Iran with a latent nuclear deterrent option against states that might mobilize to threaten it strategically. And Iran, unlike the DPRK, has other attributes with which to attract economic, political, and strategic cooperation with it.

Therefore, the proposed deal with Iran gives the country more incentives to fulfill the agreement’s terms than the Agreed Framework did for the DPRK.

Difference: Iran does not need nuclear weapons to guarantee its government’s survival or to compel economic payoffs.

The DPRK’s relative weakness compared with all its neighbors left its leaders feeling they had no better option than nuclear weapons to deter potential coercion and aggression against the country.

Iran, meanwhile, is the most populous country in its region and embodies a proud, accomplished civilization, endowed with significant natural and educated human resources. With the ascendancy of the Shia majority in Iraq, Iran faces no major military threats from its neighbors. And whatever military threats the United States and/or Israel could pose would be decisively attenuated if Iran assured them it was not seeking nuclear weapons. So, from a security perspective, Iran does not need nuclear weapons.

The theocratic elements of the Iranian government, as well as their Revolutionary Guard protectors, have faced internal opposition. However, if the regime can remove potential threats of outside military action that could create chaos that opponents could exploit, it can focus its energies and resources on managing internal competition. In this sense, a nuclear deal that removes sanctions and lessens the country’s isolation can be claimed as a success.

Opponents of the harsher features of clerical rule will be mobilized by renewed international engagement, but the resulting dynamic need not be less propitious for the government than the state of affairs that would result if Iran were to break a new international agreement and move to build nuclear weapons.

If Iran can resolve international concerns by demonstrating that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, others will be eager to pursue investments and trade with it. Unlike North Korea, Iran does not need to resort to blackmail to gain economic payoffs.

Difference: Iran is not as autarkic as the DPRK was and is, so sanctions have a major impact on it.

The DPRK does not have economic stakeholders and citizens who can press their interests through politics. Nor does the country have significant economic prospects that could be fulfilled if only the leaders would agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons and related infrastructure.

In terms of economics, Iran’s illicit nuclear program has been a major problem rather than a solution. Iranian businesses and citizens feel that sanctions have hurt the country enormously. Indeed, Rouhani admitted as much in his campaign for the presidency and therefore made achieving a nuclear deal that would relieve sanctions a central plank in his campaign. The combination of damages that nuclear-related sanctions have caused and benefits that their relief could bring constitutes a major incentive for Iran to make and uphold a comprehensive nuclear deal.

To be sure, in Iran powerful stakeholders including Revolutionary Guard foundations and businesses have benefited from sanctions to the extent that they have been spared the economic competition that would come with the country’s opening. Revolutionary Guard entities have been enriched by smuggling and other forms of nonmarket economic activities. These actors, then, can be expected to resist, or at least not welcome, the sanctions relief and international economic engagement that a successful nuclear deal would stimulate.

In this sense, these actors resemble those around the leadership of the DPRK. But within Iran, these types of actors face competitors, unlike in the DPRK.

Difference: Much of the Iranian population knows the West and wants more integration with it.

Iran’s young, urban population is modern and relatively well educated, often with direct or indirect knowledge of the Western world, unlike the population of the DPRK. This constituency voted for Rouhani and, earlier, for the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. These Iranians also supported the Green Movement protests that broke out after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential election. They welcome the prospects of a nuclear deal that would relieve sanctions and lessen their country’s international isolation. This is a significant constituency that would be mobilized if the government acted in ways that caused any sanctions that had been lifted to be reimposed, for example by cheating on a nuclear deal.

Difference: Representatives of an elected government are conducting the negotiations for Iran and are part of the policy-shaping process.

It has been clear from the way that the Iranian negotiators have projected their undertaking through the Iranian media that their effort to reach a nuclear agreement is part of a broader campaign to mobilize popular support for ending Iran’s international isolation. The widespread celebrations that followed the April 2, 2015, announcement of a framework for a comprehensive agreement indicate the general aspirations of this constituency. This suggests that if a comprehensive agreement can be completed in the coming months, it will be popular, which would then raise significantly the costs for those who might undo such an agreement by cheating. No similar dynamic has been possible in the DPRK.

Regime Characteristics

Similarity: The most important decisionmaker in Iran is an internationally isolated, ideological man who believes the United States seeks the overthrow of his government

Like Kim Jong-il in the DPRK in the mid-1990s, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran is the supreme leader. He has not left Iranian soil since 1989 and has little personal knowledge of the outside world. Like Kim Jong-il did, he projects a singular revolutionary ideology that narrates his government’s unique place and mission in the world. This worldview is highly suspicious of other actors, particularly the United States. Khamenei, like Kim Jong-il did, projects a deep need for instruments of coercion to defend his government against enemies who wish to remove it from power.

Khamenei and other Iranians note that the North Korean regime has been spared intervention to displace it by the United States or other outside actors. Iranians (and others) say that the DPRK’s retention of nuclear weapons at least partly explains this outcome.

Iranian leaders are determined to retain sufficient nuclear capabilities to deter the United States and others from reneging on the benefits they would commit to provide through a nuclear agreement, and also to deter any foreign power from mobilizing a major aggression of the scale that could threaten the Iranian regime. Regarding the second contingency, Iranians say the model is not North Korea but Japan. Khamenei and others insist that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons, but, to paraphrase former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran will retain adequate nuclear capabilities and know-how so that its neighbors will draw the proper conclusions, much as Japan’s neighbors are aware that it could produce nuclear weapons if it needed to.

Similarity: The government of Iran does and will continue to do condemnable things.

Notwithstanding the Agreed Framework and a professed wish to normalize relations with the United States, the North Korean regime continued to repress its citizens, develop and test ballistic missiles, undertake provocations against South Korea, traffic in drugs and counterfeit currency, and more. In short, the DPRK continued to act contrary to international norms and laws to an extent that only a few other states did.

Iran, while different from the DPRK in many positive ways, also continues to act contrary at least to Western norms, threatening the interests of its own people and its neighbors as well as the broader international community. (Of course, some of Iran’s neighbors that are regarded as U.S. friends similarly resist implementing norms of human rights, political representation, and noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.)

Iran’s actions are particularly threatening to U.S. interests. These actions include: support for Hezbollah’s military and terrorist wings, Islamic jihad, and Hamas; repugnant and threatening rhetoric against Israel and calls for a referendum among all Palestinians on the future of the Palestinian state, which would in effect mean the demise of Israel as a Jewish state; persecution of Iranian journalists and political opponents; development and testing of ballistic missiles; support for Shia communities in Sunni-ruled states, in ways that heighten fears of instability; and material support for the repression of Syrians by the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Other Challenges to Implementation

Difference: Key U.S. partners in the Middle East fear a nuclear deal and eventual normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.

The United States’ allies in Northeast Asia—most importantly, South Korea and Japan—thoroughly supported the negotiation to end the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. The other key state in the regional process—China—feared the consequences of a potential normalization of U.S. relations with the DPRK, especially if this could then lead to the unification of Korea. Beijing, which was North Korea’s key economic and political partner, had priorities that differed from those of the United States and fretted about the implications that unification would portend for the disposition of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula and for the unified state’s relations with China. But Beijing still welcomed the nuclear negotiations.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab states express wariness of a possible nuclear deal with Iran for several reasons. Most obviously, they note that Iran will be left with significant capabilities to enrich uranium—capabilities that could be mobilized to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the proposed agreement and the NPT. These states also worry that a nuclear agreement would ease the way for normalization of relations between the United States and Iran. In that event, they worry that the preference the United States has given to their interests over Iran’s since 1979 could be reversed.

Given Iran’s overall economic and strategic advantages relative to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, these countries see U.S.-Iranian rapprochement as a threat. They will press the United States to exert itself against Iran in other domains of policy, particularly counterterrorism and the Sunni-Shia contests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. They will work with the United States and France, especially, to deploy intelligence and military capabilities to counter Iran.

Similarity: Russia’s attitude toward U.S.-Iranian relations is a bit like China’s attitude toward U.S.–North Korean relations.

Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and it fears that a broad rapprochement between Washington and Tehran could undermine Russia’s interests in Iran and the greater Middle East. For example, Russia sees Iran as a market for defense and peaceful nuclear sales, which could be attenuated if Iran had other options.

Still, Russia has so far cooperated with the United States and the other members of the P5+1 in pressing Iran to negotiate a satisfactory outcome of the Iranian nuclear standoff that would give confidence that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons. This cooperation has been more fulsome than was China’s in the 1990s regarding North Korea.

Difference: Israel opposes any deal to which Iran would plausibly agree.

No U.S. ally or partner opposed the Agreed Framework with the DPRK. The subsequent plans to provide light-water reactors to the DPRK depended on funding and technical cooperation with South Korea and Japan, which in the event proved complicated; but the alliance politics surrounding the Agreed Framework were relatively straightforward.

Israel’s opposition—in effect, not in principle—to any nuclear agreement that would be acceptable to Iran will push the United States to reassure Israel by contesting threatening Iranian behavior.

The greatest difference with the DPRK case, however, is that Israel exerts significant influence on the U.S. Congress. This influence seriously complicates the executive branch’s capacity to implement the sanctions relief and other terms of a prospective agreement that would benefit Iran.

Similarity: Implementation of a comprehensive nuclear arrangement with Iran will require at least passive cooperation by the U.S. Congress.

The Agreed Framework with the DPRK was an executive agreement, not a treaty. As such, and like thousands of other such agreements made by U.S. administrations since 1939, it was not presented to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Yet, congressional support was necessary for the United States to implement many of the framework’s terms, including the appropriation of funds for heavy oil to meet DPRK energy needs.

The prospective nuclear agreement with Iran also will not take the form of a treaty. But it will entail commitments by the United States to suspend sanctions on Iran, which the U.S. Congress can impede. For example, Congress could enact new legislation that would remove the executive’s authority to waive existing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Or, Congress could pass new legislation to sanction Iran for some other misdeed—a step that Iranians and others would see as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of a strictly nuclear deal.

Similarity: A sizable element in Congress will likely pursue opportunities to block U.S. performance of its commitments under the terms of a nuclear deal.

By the time of the Agreed Framework, Republicans in Congress made no secret of their distrust and dislike of then U.S. president Bill Clinton, whom they moved to impeach in 1998. Many commentators in Washington observe that politics in the capital are even more hostile today than they were in the 1990s.

Clinton’s opponents charged him with appeasing the DPRK and invoked metaphors of Hitler and the 1938 Munich Agreement. Similarly, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, co-author of proposed legislation to add sanctions on Iran, commented after the April 2 announcement of the outlines of a comprehensive agreement with Iran: “[Former British prime minister] Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than [U.S. Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman got out of Iran.”

From the early stages of implementation of the Agreed Framework, Republicans in Congress used the power of the purse to slow funding of the heavy-oil supply to the DPRK. They also made clear they would impede moves to open a diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang and relieve sanctions on the DPRK. Congressional leaders sought to link funding of oil supplies and the consortium that was to supply the DPRK with light-water reactors to North Korean behavior in non-nuclear domains. The DPRK gave opponents occasions to pursue such linkages, by developing and exporting missiles and threatening South Korea.

Opponents of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran—from both political parties—should be expected similarly to seize on hostile Iranian words and deeds toward Israel, support for Assad in Syria, and other behavior to block the relief of sanctions as called for in a nuclear agreement. Congress may impose linkages that an agreement explicitly does not include, which would have the effect of breaking the agreement. U.S. President Barack Obama or his successor(s) could veto such moves, but the outcome of such a noncooperative dynamic would be difficult for Iran and other interested parties to predict.

Doubts about the U.S. executive branch’s capacity to deliver its side of a deal with Iran in turn motivate Iran to retain leverage to press the United States to deliver, or otherwise face a resumption of barred nuclear activities by Iran.


Analysts will assess the differences and similarities between the North Korean and Iranian cases in various ways. Many conclusions can and will be drawn. Among those that should be considered are two possibilities: First, the nature and circumstances of the proposed arrangement with Iran may increase the probability that Iran, unlike the DPRK, will be motivated to live up to the terms of its deal. Second, the United States may find it even more difficult to deliver on its side of the bargain than it did in the early years of the Agreed Framework.