Thursday, September 22, 2005

Negotiating with Criminals

Eli Lake, New York Sun:
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, makes an incontrovertible point. On Tuesday he reminded American and European diplomats who proposed that his country's violations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty be referred to the United Nations Security Council of the recent developments in North Korea. "After two years they accept North Korea's right to enrichment. They should do the same with us," he said.

Not so long ago the president talked about keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes. He toppled Saddam Hussein's sovereign mafia because the tyrant failed to persuade the world that he had complied with his last opportunity to disarm. And he dubbed North Korea and Iran - two countries that are now asserting their right to master the nuclear fuel cycle - as part of an "axis of evil."

What happened? In 2003 the president followed the advice of his secretary of state, Colin Powell, and opted to work closely with the Europeans to pressure Iran to accept unannounced inspections of the vast network of labs and centrifuges it had hitherto hidden from the international community. This process involved overlooking a clear violation of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in favor of gaining assurances that the Iranians be prevented from making bombs. In the same year, the president launched six-party talks with North Korea aimed at getting the country to rejoin that treaty it had just rejected and dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities. This week Pyongyang agreed in principle to rejoin the treaty in exchange for a light water reactor and economic assistance.

The results of these negotiations are now in. For Tehran, America must pretend that one of the world's leading exporters of oil and natural gas has a right to obtain nuclear fuel, as if it's possible the mullahs would like these centrifuges for nothing more than powering their cities. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy itself has said repeatedly that Iran has yet to fully answer outstanding questions relating to the development and capacity of the program it kept hidden from the world for two decades.

On Tuesday, North Korea's foreign ministry announced that North Korea would not begin the disassembly of its reactors until the light water reactor promised down the road is delivered. It remains an open question whether the shipments of food and fuel can be conditioned on access to North Korea's political concentration camps or spur Kim Jong Il to stop holding captive the thousands of his people who wish to leave this failed state. And so far the verification mechanisms America will need to make sure Mr. Kim does not break his word again have yet to be ironed out.

The problem is that the president has conflated a regime problem with a diplomatic problem. Hence on September 13, President Bush nearly conceded Mr. Larijani's point before he made it. With Iraq's first elected president by his side, he said, "It's a right of a government to want to have a civilian nuclear program. But there ought to be guidelines in which they be allowed to have that civilian nuclear program." By acceding this vague right (what exactly does it mean to have a right to want something?) the president is introducing a moral hazard for any dictator that aspires to build nuclear weapons. The leader of the free world now asserts that any state that would like can pursue nuclear power, so long as there are guidelines. READ MORE

And Mr. Larijani is now proving just how hazardous the last two years of diplomacy have been. In the discussions this week in Vienna, the Iranians threatened to leave the nuclear nonproliferation treaty if their case is referred to the U.N. Security Council. Why shouldn't they? Kim Jong Il is getting all manner of assistance and a functioning nuclear reactor as a reward for his brinksmanship.

At issue is not the interpretation of the treaty, but whether it makes any sense for the world to trust the likes of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim Jong Il. It should be said that both countries are notorious violators of other international agreements, ranging from human rights accords designed to protect the freedoms of their citizens to pacts prohibiting the sponsorship of terrorism or the counterfeiting of foreign currency.

Both Iran and North Korea are the very definition of rogue actors. Trusting them not to cheat on their commitments, nuclear or otherwise, is akin to trusting crack dealers to respect drug-free school zones. Furthermore, the world's diplomacy has yet to offer any disincentive to the cheating any sane observer would expect from Iran and North Korea. Those disincentives need not be the threat of military action or even the support for Iran's opposition or the exploration of ginning up a North Korean one. But at the very least, the president should devote his diplomatic energies to persuading the world that no international agreement is safe in a world that treats Iran and North Korea as if they were Switzerland or Japan. The cops don't catch every crack dealer, but they don't negotiate the terms of drug trafficking laws with them either.