The Obama administration has rushed to complete an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. In return for easing U.S.-led international sanctions and bringing much-needed economic relief to the regime, Iran will be required to delay and suspend, but not dismantle, its uranium-enrichment capability.
Opponents of the proposed pact call it a “sucker’s deal” and note that it leaves Tehran with a breakout nuclear capability. Further, they caution that we have been down this road before; namely, with North Korea. This is an apt comparison: Might the ayatollahs have learned something from the actions of Pyongyang throughout the Agreed Framework, pulling out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and eventually testing its first nuclear weapon? The short-term goal of Tehran is to ease the economic pressure of the sanctions, while retaining its nuclear capability by offering only cosmetic, easily reversible concessions.
The North Korean example has taught that this strategy works, buying time and breathing room for a regime, which is all the while still pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability. There is another, and even more troubling example — Libya. The 2011 U.S.-NATO military intervention that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi created a powerful disincentive for potential proliferators to follow his example of disarmament.
After more than three decades of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and repeatedly flouting the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons regime at every turn, Libya announced in December 2003 that it was abandoning its weapons program. While there is disagreement as to why this about-face occurred (reports suggest the regime desperately sought a deal as the war in Iraq loomed, worried that it would be next), inducements to “rejoining the community of nations” were offered in exchange for cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Libya acceded, sanctions were lifted, and Libya subsequently concluded nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and Canada.
Libya was held up as a nonproliferation model for other nations. Within a few brief years, though, the countries that promised good things would come to the leader who forfeited his weapons program were involved in military action to help topple that very same leader. It’s not hard to imagine how different the international community’s response would have been had the Gadhafi regime actually had nuclear weapons — or even a serious weapons-development program — as a bargaining chip. One need think only of how Syria’s Bashar Assad escaped U.S. attack by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons.
Any regime concerned about its survival must surely have learned a lesson by watching the bloody killing of Gadhafi in the streets of Sirte, Libya. He correctly thought that freedom from interference by Western powers was vitally important to his regime’s security, and yet he chose to give up his weapons of mass destruction, weapons which might have given him a degree of bargaining power against attack. Conversely, North Korea came to the table, struck deals, and quietly developed its capabilities, as Syria may well be doing. This is no choice between Scylla and Charybdis — one way works, and the other leads to disaster.
None of this is to suggest that there were not other legitimate reasons for helping to remove Gadhafi, with whom the United States and the Western world had a long-standing set of serious grievances. Rather, it is to point out that U.S action to remove Gadhafi — after he voluntarily terminated his weapons program — is a flashing red light to other would-be proliferators. What is in it for them to follow Libya’s example?
The nonproliferation community remains too much focused on form over substance. The interim agreement removes Iran’s short-term incentive to give up its nuclear program without recognizing the long-term incentives to continue clandestine pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability. Real precedents in North Korea, Libya and Syria have real consequences, and they are the sources of real lessons that would-be proliferators draw from American actions. The ayatollahs in Tehran are no exception.
Going forward, a serious U.S. nonproliferation policy must clearly align rewards and punishments with real behavior and not on stated assurances. For now, however, it should be assumed that the lesson of Libya was learned in Tehran and that we will soon enough be revisiting the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Jonathan Bergner is an independent national-security policy analyst.