The Netanyahu Speech



I wince whenever someone invokes the “lessons of history.” Rarely do such lessons emerge with the clarity of Churchill’s intuitions about Hitler; history is not only complicated but contested. And so it is with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s references to the North Korean experience as a guide to what we should do about Iran. Where is the Prime Minister right and where is he wrong in seeking parallels?

There is one point on which the Korean record strongly comports with Netanyahu’s priors. The ideal way to restrict Iran’s, or any other potential nuclear state’s, break-out time is to negotiate the disablement and ultimately dismantlement of physical infrastructure. I am unsympathetic with those who argue you can’t destroy what the Iranians know. While true, you can dismantle what they have built. Yes, they may be rebuild it. But rebuilding takes time and time is always what we are buying.

But as with much in the Prime Minister’s speech, the issue is not what is ideal but what will work. On that score, the Netanyahu strategy is in fact laced with risk.

Netanyahu’s account of the current state of play contained some important omissions if not outright misrepresentations. We do not know precisely how long it would take the Iranians to break out, but the interim agreement (technically the Joint Plan of Action) has already capped elements of the Iranian program. It is unclear how the Prime Minister can conclude that Iran’s breakout time has actually gotten shorter or that it would diminish further under a subsequent arrangement. The idea that the P5+1 would reach an agreement that actually shortened Iran’s breakout time is—to put it bluntly—ridiculous.

For the record, it is worth simply ticking off what the Joint Plan of Action has done:

  • Iran’s stockpile of 19.75% enriched uranium was eliminated through a combination of dilution and conversion to uranium oxide. As a benchmark, the threshold for highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is often considered 20% but in fact effective weapons grade is much higher, above 80%.
  • Iran’s stockpile of gasified uranium enriched up to 5% has been capped by feeding the newly produced amounts into the uranium oxide process.
  • No new centrifuges have been installed or constructed and the more advanced IR-2 centrifuges have not been used to produce enriched uranium. Half of the installed centrifuges have not been used for enrichment.
  • No new enrichment facilities have been constructed.
  • No fuel has been produced, tested, or transferred to the Arak nuclear power plant and no components have been added to the reactor, effectively halting construction.
  • The IAEA has been granted daily access to Natanz and Fordow, with certain portions of these facilities monitored by 24-hour cameras.

The Prime Minister put substantial emphasis not only on the terms of the agreement but on what will happen when it expires. These arguments made little sense. In principle, Iran would at that point be able to operate as many centrifuges as it wants, which would shorten the breakout time. But the purpose of the agreement is to steer Iran and the US along a policy course on which Iran’s interest in pursuing the nuclear option is reduced as is our necessity of responding. And of course without a deal, the Iranians will do what they want anyway, and thus almost certainly reduce their breakout time. The focus on sunset provisions was puzzling.

What does the North Korean case tell us about the history of such ‘freezes’? The record is less obvious than the Prime Minister suggests. The Agreed Framework signed in 1994 did in fact freeze the North Korean nuclear program and particularly its reactor at Yongbyon. The explicit mention that Netanyahu makes of North Korea—at about 17:50 in the New York Times video—has to do with the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, which had two causes. The first was the North Korean decision to abrogate it by developing a (probably highly limited) HEU capacity.

The other reason the agreement broke down, however, is because President Bush’s team decided to suspend heavy fuel oil shipments under the Agreed Framework for this derogation rather than building a coalition of restraint—including with the Chinese—and negotiating over it. The Prime Minister noted that inspectors detect violations; they don’t stop them. But the actions that North Korea took, and arguably North Korea’s entire path to the its first nuclear test in October 2006, were driven by an ineffective American strategy that bears at least some resemblance to what Netanyahu is proposing. As is well-known, North Korea’s nuclear capability did not emanate from the HEU program over which the Agreed Framework broke down but from reprocessing of spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor that the North Koreans restarted following the suspension of fuel oil shipments.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is not altogether clear, but its first component is to dramatically widen the scope of the negotiations to include three demands that are not currently on the table: that Iran stop aggression against its neighbors; stop supporting terrorism; and stop threatening Israel. The Bush administration considered a similar widening of the agenda with respect to North Korea in the first two years of his first term. The way to achieve the laudable objectives that Netanyahu outlines are not to negotiate with Iran, but to deter and defend: to form coalitions of allies, to maintain deterrent capabilities, to use them when appropriate, to interdict financing and weapons and to kill terrorists.

We should be clear: widening the negotiating agenda at this point will not have the effect of “reaching a better deal.” It will have the effect of collapsing the talks altogether, leaving us to wait and see how Iran responds. Does anyone think that if the P5+1 take this route the Joint Plan of Action will remain in place?

The second component of the Prime Minister’s strategy is to increase sanctions against the country. As part of the interim agreement there has been some loosening of constraints on Iran, so this component of Netanyahu’s strategy is also a deal-breaker; it would involve stopping or reversing commitments the P5+1 has made.

The only logic I can see operating here is that by breaking agreements we have made and cutting off negotiations—currently with a March 24 deadline—subsequent Iranian actions would catalyze support for tougher sanctions. These tougher sanctions, in turn, would reset the negotiation process in a way that would allow the P5+1 to make stiffer demands.

But the fatal flaw is that these actions will not necessarily set the stage for a resumption of negotiations, and thus will not set the stage for a “better deal.” They set the stage for Iran to resume its nuclear activities and get closer to—not farther from--a breakout. Anything that moves in that direction takes us closer to difficult decisions about the use of force that run tremendous risks not only for the United States but for Israel as well.

One final observation. A key premise undergirding the Prime Minister’s approach is that a “bad deal”—meaning one on which the Iranians renege—is somehow an irreversible inevitability. But this is sophistry. Iranian derogations from any agreements would not and should not be passively accepted by the P5+1, but met with the appropriate resolve. And they no doubt would be.

The question for US policy—and for Congress—is whether we want to follow the Prime Minister’s lead in effectively undoing what the P5+1 has accomplished to date in order to see how the Iranians might respond. Which side of this debate is making the risky proposal?

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