IranInsight|Showcasing a Multifaceted Iran

January 3, 2018
“North Korea must earn its way back to the table. The pressure campaign must and will continue until denuclearization is achieved.”

This statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on December 15, reversing comments he made just a few days earlier at the Atlantic Council that the US would welcome talks without preconditions, assumes that there is a table to return to.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The last table with North Korea was one of the six-party talks, which were discontinued in 2009. The six parties -- China, Russia, the US, Japan and North and South Korea – brokered an agreement in 2005 but North Korea went on to explode its first nuclear device the following year. A subsequent understanding in 2007 also fell apart and North Korea has conducted five more nuclear tests while also expanding its development of ballistic missiles. It now claims to have missiles capable of hitting the continental United States.

Although the possibility of resuming six-party talks has often been mentioned, a serious effort is so far neither visible nor credible.

Suggestions for new initiatives abound. UN Secretary General António Guterres has offered UN involvement and recently sent his under secretary for political affairs to Pyongyang.   The European Union´s High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini has indicated support, although the EU has been reluctant to get involved. Of European states, both Sweden and Switzerland have offered to mediate. Russia has too.

What is characteristic of all these offers is that they are aired in the media without any concrete follow up to create an actual table or even ”talks about talks.” Track 2 and Track 1.5 tables – bringing together US North Korea experts and North Korean officials – do not appear to be making much headway either.

A more promising approach might be to follow the model of the negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

The first table was created in 2003 when the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK, the so called E3, took the initiative to talk to Iran after its nuclear facilities had been revealed by an Iranian dissident group.   Negotiations were started and two agreements were signed, one in Tehran in October 2003 and the following in Paris in November 2004. Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, although only on a temporary and voluntary basis. Iran also initiated the application of the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, allowing for stringent inspection of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Organization.

The second table was formed in 2006 when China, Russia and the United States joined the EU and the E3 in a proposal to Iran in June, creating a grouping known as the P5+1 for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. In July of that year, the Security Council approved resolution 1696 stating that suspension of uranium enrichment would be mandatory under the UN Charter´s Chapter VII.  Although the main action in 2006-2010 was in the Security Council, the P5+1 continued to provide the table for meetings with Iran. This was also the case in 2011-2013 when the US and the EU approved additional sanctions.

A new table was created in 2011 in back channel talks between Iran and the US mediated by the Sultan of Oman. These bilateral negotiations between two hostile parties would never have been possible without the umbrella of the P5+1. The ultimate proof came in the approval of the final deal in 2015. The Obama administration underlined in Congress that a tougher deal was not an option in part because of its multilateral nature. Should the deal be reopened, the non-US partners of the P5+1 would likely refuse to withdraw. The Iranian parliament was critical of bilateral negotiations with the US. Even though a bilateral understanding was critical to success, Iran could not have signed on without the wider P5+1 umbrella.

In the North Korean case, there is an urgent need for a bold new initiative to negotiate. A second Korean War seems closer than ever. Namecalling in the UN, nuclear tests, provocative tweets and military  provocations on both sides have created an atmosphere in which not only an intentional war but also a war based on misunderstanding could put millions of lives in danger. Experts agree that there is no military solution. Sanctions combined with isolation are not expected to work. Sanctions have to be combined with diplomacy.

Recently, two US nuclear experts, Robert Einhorn and Michael O´Hanlon, wrote a piece on how to “walk back from the brink with North Korea.” Preconditions that could be confused with the final results should be avoided, they said, while international economic pressure should be intensified. The critical question to be asked is how to find a “formula for initiating talks that addresses DPRK concerns while protecting US and allied security.”

Based on the Iran case an even more critical question is: who should or could take the initiative? Is there a relatively neutral actor that could provide an umbrella for the hostile parties to meet -- as the EU did in the Iran case? No one is volunteering. No one seems to have the courage to take the initiative and potentially risk not succeeding but surely someone must step forward. Unfortunately,  the best prediction may be hidden in a tweet by President Trump: “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Tarja Cronberg is a Distinquished Associate Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI and an Executive Director of the European Leadership Network Board. She is the author of “Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations”, Routledge 2017.

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