Book Launch | Nuclear Crises with North Korea and Iran: From Transformational to Transactional Diplomacy | Wilson Center
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Book Launch | Nuclear Crises with North Korea and Iran: From Transformational to Transactional Diplomacy

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

The ongoing nuclear impasses with both North Korea and Iran reflect a persisting tension in U.S. policy: Should diplomacy be transactional, focused narrowly on the discrete nuclear challenge, or transformational, comprehensively addressing these regimes’ objectionable behavior? Rhetorically, with both North Korea and Iran, the Trump administration aspires for the transformational. Breaking the impasses requires a pivot from a transformational strategy to the transactional. Transactional diplomacy with limited objectives offers a plausible pathway for constraining, not eliminating, these states’ threatening capabilities.

Selected Quotes


“The United States may assert a general interest in nonproliferation, but our policies focus on adversarial proliferators—states that combine capabilities with hostile intent. So, with reason, U.S. policymakers focus on Iran and North Korea more than Israel and India. Now, in approaching these two challenges that we’re addressing today, North Korea and Iran, we face the dilemma of competing timelines. Two timelines: one for the acquisition of nuclear capabilities, the other for regime change or evolution. And that’s the bind. These timelines are not in sync. The nuclear challenges are immediate and urgent, and we can’t wait for some indeterminate timeline for regime evolution, or regime change, to play out while these states develop these capabilities.”

“As General Mattis is fond of pointing out, ‘The enemy gets a vote too.’ So, basically, that’s the context of my analysis and frames the current impasse that we’re at. Essentially, we’ve seen the limits of the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure, and maximum pressure is not a strategy. It’s a set of instruments they brought to bear, but brought to bear to what end? And we’re left with the same three bad options we’ve had all along with these two countries; bomb, negotiate, or acquiesce to the bad things happening to them continuing to build these capabilities. I make the analytical case why a pivot to transactional diplomacy could essentially prevent a bad decision from getting worse. But the question is whether that analytical judgement will be reflected in a political judgement by the policymakers; whether they’re willing to—and how they would negotiate—such a pivot.”

“North Korea has thirty to sixty nuclear weapons. It’s on the cusp of a qualitative and quantitative breakout. A quantitative [breakout] because the number of warheads, or the amount of weapons-usable material, they will have fabricated (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium) could be as high as 100 by 2020. That’s about half the size of the United Kingdom’s arsenal. When I got into this business, I couldn’t have imagined North Korea with an arsenal half the size of Great Britain’s. And you juxtapose that to the size of the North Korean economy; forty billion dollars estimated by the CIA…. That’s the size of Dayton, Ohio.”

“Iran’s nuclear program is deliberate. It’s purposeful. It’s determined. But it’s not a crash program…. This is not a crash program by Iran to get a nuclear weapon. But they want the hedge, the latent capability. And there’s a statement by Presidents Rafsanjani back in the 2000’s that, ‘All we need to demonstrate to our neighbors is that we have the potential to do. We don’t actually need weapons.’”

“We should go for a transactional deal with North Korea to freeze the program; no new nuclear weapons tests, a real freeze on ballistic missile tests, and a declaration of what their facilities are for producing weapons-usable material (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium) to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. And then with Iran, to get us back into the JCPOA constraints. This is going to be really a heavy lift, diplomatically, because it will require the United States to lift the secondary sanctions…. Permit Iran to export oil, and then put on the negotiating table these other issues.”

“I don’t recall who said it, but there was a formulation that I like, which is, ‘North Korea and Iran do not respond to pressure, but without pressure, North Korea and Iran will not respond.”

“The United States, I think, is in a weak position right now. Because we’ve had the bravado, maximum pressure, but I think empirically we can now conclude that maximum pressure cannot achieve transformational goals, because states are not going to commit regime suicide.… The maximum pressure has painted the Trump administration into a corner.”





  • Robert S. Litwak

    Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies
  • David Sanger

    Former Distinguished Fellow
    National Security Correspondent, The New York Times; and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center