Webcast Recap

On July 28, 2009, the Wilson Center on the Hill and Division of International Security Studies hosted two leading experts to discuss the challenges facing the US policy-makers with regard to Iran and North Korea, and the options for going forward. Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, focused on diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear crisis, and Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a leading North Korea watcher, discussed how the domestic politics in North Korea will interact with nuclear politics and options for diplomacy. The event was moderated by Robert Litwak, the director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Robert Litwak framed the discussion with the observation that, in addition to ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration inherited twin nuclear crises -- Iran and North Korea. Despite the political turmoil since the Iranian Presidential election, Iran is continuing to expand its uranium enrichment program and ignore United Nations Security Council Resolutions requiring the suspension of the program. North Korea conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May 2009. With the Obama administration striving for engagement rather than confrontation, these developments have raised the diplomatic stakes with both countries. As Litwak explained, although Iran has a less advanced nuclear program than North Korea, Iran is "the more dynamic threat because of its extensive financial resources from oil production, its erratic president, it's extremist rhetoric, and Tehran's destabilizing foreign policy." As Adler put it, Iran is the tipping point in an international crisis over the spread of nuclear weapons.

Adler explained that the Iranian nuclear crisis has been put on the back burner since revelations surfaced in 2002 that Iran was hiding nuclear work, allowing Iran to forge ahead with its atomic program. It is unclear how close Iran is to making a bomb, with estimates varying from as soon as six months to 2014. However, the U.S. estimates that there is still time for diplomacy.

Adler described three tactics that the Obama administration can use to keep from being sidelined in actions to halt the Iranian nuclear program. The first is to "not let Iran off the hook." Engagement with Iran should involve incentives for cooperation such as help with peaceful nuclear work and lifting trade barriers. This may require flexibility, allowing Iran to keep some enriched uranium for uses other than making bombs. If these measures are unsuccessful, "crippling" sanctions can be used to pressure Iran into submission. However, Russian commitment to these sanctions would be crucial to ensuring they are effective. Whether Russia will agree to tough sanctions is uncertain because of their lucrative trade partnership with Iran.

Secondly, Adler believes that the United States should avoid strict deadlines or threaten definitive action. This may seem counterintuitive, but since 2002 action has been threatened that has not been taken. Adler suggested that "empty threats" are not only ineffective, but counter-productive as well. Further, the uncertainty regarding Russian cooperation on tough sanctions makes it difficult for the U.S. to determine in advance whether the international community will enforce deadlines or threatened actions.

Finally, Adler believes the U.S. must set limits. As Adler stated, this crisis has been marked by delays and international compromises and the table is set for more stalling by Iran. "If the Obama administration is going keep Iran from having a nuclear weapons capacity, it will have to impose its own schedule."

The ability to get an international mandate to convince Iran to comply with resolutions depends highly on Russia. In laying the groundwork for negotiation, the Obama administration has offered Iran talks without preconditions and has respected the Iranian regime. As Adler put it, we have "talked the talk" very well, but to "walk the walk" we will need Russia by our side. Russia has agreed to cooperate, but their timeline for Iranian compliance is much more extended. It is quite possible that when the time comes to for the United States to move ahead, our Russian allies will want to give Iran more time.

Marcus Noland then outlined the current situation with North Korea. In the backdrop of the North Korean nuclear crisis is a potentially significant societal development. North Korea is in the mist of a succession, as Kim Jong-Il appears to have had a stroke and there are rumors circling that he has cancer. Noland explained that we can only have modest expectations about what can be accomplished regarding the nuclear crisis in the short run because of the political uncertainties regarding Kim Jong-Il's deteriorating health,. Real progress will probably require a change of regime.

In the meantime, Noland believes the U.S. should be preparing for the worst. International pressure and policies such as sanctions are unlikely to reverse the North Korean nuclear program. These measures may only help with preventing further development and proliferation.

Noland also stressed that it is crucial for the United States to talk with the Chinese about contingencies related to the crisis and develop clear rules about China's disposition and involvement. Like Russia in the case of Iran, China's cooperation is crucial to imposing effective sanctions and international pressure. Noland described China's opinion on North Korea as ambivalent -- some Chinese believe that North Korea is a useful pawn in their rivalry with the United States and others feel that North Korea is not worth the costs it creates for China. Additionally, Noland believes that China and South Korea are more fearful of a collapsing and unstable North Korea than the status quo. This may limit the degree of pressure they will place on North Korea in fear that excessive pressure could provoke a collapse. Noland believes that the United States is currently not talking enough with the Chinese about this issue and needs to bring China's role to the forefront of discussions.

There are two modalities for negotiation with North Korea, Noland explained. The first is to continue the six party talks and to leave the door open to North Korea if they want to come back. The second is bi-lateral talks, which North Korea has suggested would be conditioned on the United States recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power. Only then will they discuss arms reduction. Getting to the point where both North Korea and the United States are willing to agree on terms for a bi-lateral talk is likely to take time.

Litwak concluded the discussion by outlining the realistic expectations of negotiations with North Korea and Iran. He believes that the United States can realistically expect to bound the problem and ensure that nuclear materials are not transferred beyond the Iranian and North Korean territories, but that a reversal of their nuclear programs is not realistic. To achieve these expectations, the U.S. must create meaningful pressure with the help of China and Russia. Essentially, the U.S. is no where without Chinese and Russian cooperation -- and this speaks to the necessity of prioritizing U.S. interests with China and Russia.

Congressional staff and audience members responded with a number of questions. Two questions were posed about the United States ability to succeed in getting Russian and Chinese cooperation and what the Obama administration can do to contain the problem without their help. In response, Adler emphasized that getting Russia's cooperation is a key aspect of the Obama administration's policy regarding the nuclear crisis in Iran and that attempts for negotiation with Russia have already begun., Noland stated that, if attempts fail, the United States can inflict damage on both countries without the help of China and Russia through the use of financial sanctions. Adler added that Iran relies heavily on foreign investment and sanctions that cut off Iranian banks from getting loans and insurance for trade could be effective. The United States has already embarked on these types of sanctions with the Department of the Treasury and will expand their use if need be. Sanctions that cut off Iranian access to Western technology for oil refinement and petroleum products could also be effective in containing the problem. This could be accomplished without Russia and China.

Another person asked at what point should the United States take military action. In response, Adler stated that sanctions are used to avoid military action and that if the U.S. does not move strongly on sanctions the only alternative is a military attack. Litwak added that it was estimated that an attack on Iran would only set their nuclear program back two years and a two year setback is not enough to warrant a military attack. Similarly, Noland explained that a military attack on North Korea would be extremely risky and there is a lot of uncertainty about the location of the assets that the U.S. would want to target..

Ultimately, the panel stressed the importance of bringing the nuclear crisis to the forefront of discussions. Delays and compromises have allowed both Iran and North Korea to continue expanding their nuclear programs. The United States must move forward with diplomacy and sanctions and work to gain Chinese and Russian support.

Drafted by Julia Smearman, STAGE Program
Edited by David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill