Iran General NewsU.S. approach to Iran has a familiar ring

U.S. approach to Iran has a familiar ring

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Wall Street Journal: As President Bush contemplates the possibility of nonproliferation talks with Iran, he runs some of the same risks he said the Clinton administration took when dealing with North Korea.
The Wall Street Journal

Incentives Plan Mirrors Clinton Team’s Deal With North Korea Over Nuclear Program

By JAY SOLOMON

June 13, 2006; Page A4

WASHINGTON — As President Bush contemplates the possibility of nonproliferation talks with Iran, he runs some of the same risks he said the Clinton administration took when dealing with North Korea.

Mr. Bush and his top aides were critical five years ago of the Clinton team’s negotiating tactics with the regime in Pyongyang, charging that despotic states made unstable, untrustworthy negotiating partners. The White House’s fears about Pyongyang remain, as American officials say they see signs North Korea may be preparing to test a long-range missile.

Now the Bush team has opened the door to the possibility of holding similar talks with Iran — not direct talks, but as part of an international dialogue already started by America’s European allies. Indeed, these talks could ultimately lead to an agreement like the one the Clinton team reached with North Korea.

The reasons for such a profound shift in the Bush foreign-policy agenda say much about the struggles the administration faced during its first term trying to contain both Pyongyang and Tehran, say current and former American diplomats.

Many counterproliferation experts support this evolving U.S. approach, saying it is a more realistic and potentially sustainable than avoiding direct talks. They also see the White House’s diplomatic U-turn as an unstated recognition of the limits of unilateral American power.

“They were in the bunker at the White House, thinking, eventually, these countries would have to succumb to our power,” says George Perkovich, a counterproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. “But it turns out we can’t do everything out there alone.”

In recent weeks, American officials say, U.S. spy satellites have picked up images from North Korea indicating Pyongyang is preparing to test launch its long-range missile, the Taepo Dong-2, which American intelligence believes has the potential to hit U.S. territory. A launch would be seen as a move by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to wrest more economic incentives from Washington in return for Pyongyang dismantling its weapons systems.

Before al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., North Korea’s nuclear program was among the Bush administration’s top foreign-policy issues. President Clinton had forged a deal with Pyongyang in his first term, whereby North Korea agreed to give up its capacity for producing nuclear fuel in exchange for what were described as proliferation-proof light-water nuclear reactors. The Agreed Framework, as it was called, also pledged economic incentives for Pyongyang and a gradual normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

The Bush administration, from its earliest days, challenged the terms of the 1994 Clinton agreement. In 2001, the White House tried to broaden the deal, citing the need to discuss human rights and North Korea’s conventional military forces if relations were to be normalized between Washington and Pyongyang. They also questioned the amount of monitoring the international community was able to pursue inside North Korea through the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ultimately, the entire Agreed Framework would collapse in 2002 after North Korean diplomats admitted to an American delegation that it had been cheating by seeking to develop a separate nuclear-fuel source. The collapse of the deal has ushered in nearly four years of new talks among the U.S., North Korea and four other regional powers, in a bid to come to a more comprehensive agreement.

No new agreement has been made with Pyongyang’s leadership. Repeated attempts by the U.S. to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table have so far failed. A North Korean missile launch could significantly increase tensions.

Counterproliferation experts say the White House could ultimately agree to engage in a similar multiparty structure for its talks with Iran, though the members would be different.

Many former and current Bush administration officials also say any talks with Iran could very well end up producing a deal mirroring the original Agreed Framework. Last week, Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, presented to Tehran a list of incentives that the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council would support if Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program. Among the perks are light-water nuclear reactors and fuel guarantees as well as a list of economic incentives that includes lifting the ban on the sale of airplane parts to Tehran and assistance in Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. didn’t offer to normalize relations with Iran. But the White House did vow to work to establish a security framework for the Middle East, which could assuage some of Iran’s concerns about the U.S. military presence in the region.

Iran’s leadership says it is studying the package offered by the U.S. and its partners but gave no specific time frame for responding. Iran’s lead negotiator on the nuclear issue, Ali Larijani, said last week that Tehran was eager to negotiate but that Iran maintains its right to develop uranium-enrichment technologies.

“This is all a Middle East equivalent of an Agreed Framework, essentially offering economic incentives in return for certain behavior on the nuclear program,” says Richard Haass, who headed the State Department’s policy-planning staff during the first Bush administration. “It’s structurally very similar” to what was offered to North Korea.

American diplomats involved in the Iran issue say there are many reasons why talks with Tehran could prove more productive then those that have stalled with North Korea. For one, they say Iran fears it could be isolated economically if it doesn’t come to an agreement with the U.S. and its dialogue partners. While Pyongyang, they say, seems to covet its international pariah status, Iran seems to want to integrate economically to placate a growing, and young, population.

And they stress that any formal agreements made by the international community with Tehran would likely be much easier to verify.

Still, there are many in the counterproliferation community who fear Tehran is essentially preparing to mirror North Korea’s efforts to wait out the international community. They say even if Tehran fails to comply with Western demands to freeze its uranium-enrichment programs, there are indications China and Russia still wouldn’t agree to coercive measures.

“The Iranians could hardly think the situation North Korea finds itself in is bad,” says Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Education Policy Center in Washington. “They haven’t been punished at all,” and they continue to fail to comply.

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