This Week in Geopolitics

Iran and North Korea Demonstrate the Trouble With International Agreements

October 9, 2017

For over two decades, the American response to North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has been to seek a diplomatic solution that would give the North Koreans an incentive to abandon their quest. The North Koreans agreed to suspend production of nuclear material, took the money and other incentives, and then proceeded to develop nuclear weapons anyway. This policy of diplomacy, concessions, and betrayal lasted through the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and has now been handed to the Donald Trump administration.

The story with Iran is somewhat similar. Iran, the US, the EU, China, and Russia negotiated a deal in which the Iranians agreed not to develop a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. It is unclear whether the Iranians have truly discontinued their nuclear program, but they assuredly have continued to develop missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons to targets.

The US claims that the development of these missiles constitutes a problem worthy of new sanctions; Iran counters that the missiles are not intended to carry nuclear weapons. Either way, Trump is on the verge of declaring that the Iranians are not complying with the agreement and imposing new sanctions and other measures.

A Contract’s Real Value

This is hardly unique to international relations. How often has each of us negotiated an agreement only to find that the other side interprets its meaning differently than we do? Sometimes there is genuine confusion; sometimes there is a deliberate attempt to gain an advantage. In international relations, sometimes the market conditions have changed, or sometimes the relative strength of the signatories has changed.

Whatever the reason, there are those who regard a signed contract as the beginning of the negotiating process and not the end. The outcome frequently rests less on the facts and more on how important the issue is to each side and how deep their pockets are. In business and in diplomacy, a contract’s value rests in the ability to enforce it.

And yet in business, there is normally the option of litigating the matter in court. In international affairs, there is no place to litigate except in some international courts, where the law is unclear and enforcement of the ruling depends on the willingness of both parties to accept it. If the issue is important, then no one will concede its outcome to the judgment of a third party. Nations live, for the most part, in the state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes put it. There is no political entity with the power and will to enforce agreements that nations don’t want enforced. When individuals or businesses need to enforce an agreement, they can go to court; in the case of nations, they usually must resort to war.

Like going to court, going to war is a risky business. No matter how strong your case or your military, the outcome is very much in doubt, and the price may turn out to be more than the solution was worth. US history since World War II is filled with such examples.

If the risk involved in going to war is too high—militarily, financially, and politically—then there are two choices. One is to walk away from a potential deal and let nature take its course. The other is to sign a deal, knowing that the other side is likely to cheat (and perhaps that you yourself are likely to cheat). The difference between a deal and no deal becomes much less stark when viewed this way. The deal exists only as long as both sides believe in it.

Flawed Arguments

If the Iranians want to build a nuclear weapon, they will do so with or without an agreement… unless the agreement is so enticing that they prefer its terms to nuclear weapons. Alternatively, the nature of these agreements is such that they can take the benefits and then build the weapon anyway, as North Korea has done.

Diplomats and lawyers would argue that a deal is always better than war or litigation, but reality is more complicated. In the case of North Korea, the US faces the stark choice of accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, or waging a war in which it would have many disadvantages. The US might win, but that isn’t certain. Whether victory is worth the cost is even less certain.

The US now has the same choice to make with regard to Iran. The argument was that the lifting of sanctions would provide such benefits that Iran would forego its pursuit of the bomb. Perhaps it has. But the argument now is that it has accepted the benefits of the deal and could still build the bomb and that the US should therefore take away the benefits. Taking away the benefits is one thing, but if the Iranians always intended to build the bomb no matter what, the question isn’t whether to have an agreement but whether to have a war.

The issue is confused on both sides. There are those who argue that the agreement with Iran must remain in place or the US will lose all leverage. But that raises the question of whether the entire notion of leverage was an illusion. Then there are those who want to terminate the agreement as punishment to Iran. This assumes that the punishment is sufficient to force the Iranians to abandon their course.

Those who are convinced that Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons—and still doesn’t—have a coherent position, vulnerable only to facts. They may be right, but why are they so certain that they are? Those who think that the Iranians will build a bomb if the agreement is suspended must show why the agreement stops Iran from building a bomb now. Those who agree that the Iranians are violating the agreement, but argue that retaining the agreement is still the best strategy, must explain why this situation will not end the same way that North Korea has ended. And those who want to suspend the agreement must explain why they think the agreement is so important to Iran that its suspension would force the Iranians to end their weapons program.

There is no law of the land between nations, no neutral court, and no judgment to be enforced by marshals or constables. This is the state of nature, where there is only power, and where illusion is a costly luxury. Either North Korea’s having a bomb is unacceptable or it isn’t. The same is true with Iran. There is no court but the court of war, and if war isn’t an option, then North Korea and Iran know it. They aren’t fools.

Trying to appear tough when you have passed so many opportunities to be tough is no less a mistake in diplomacy than it is in a business negotiation. In the case of Iran, as with North Korea, the American hope is that the appetite for nukes will go away if there are enough meetings and threats. As North Korea demonstrated, the appetite never left because the stakes—regime survival and regional power—were astronomical. The same is true of Iran. The US must make a decision on how it will proceed with both, and no choice is itself a choice.

George Friedman
George Friedman

Discuss This


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Oct. 16, 2017, 5:40 a.m.

Whether North Korea or Iran, we can chose to ignore the impact of acting unilaterally at our own peril. From everything I’ve read, Iran has fully complied with the agreement, so what basis is there for Trump to withdraw from it? As for North Korea, do you believe they would realistically risk complete annihilation by launching a missile at the US? To me, the only real wildcard in this deck is the unstable individual in the White House.

Charlie Riehm

Oct. 10, 2017, 8:59 a.m.

Mr. Friedman leaves out one salient point about North Korea—they have overtly and often threatened to use those weapons directly against the US, where Iran has not. History and I believe the nature of this threat demands the US draw the “red line” with every intention and indication that we intend to ‘honor’ it, as we have not in the past. Trump is taking the only option left. Iran is a regional problem that we need to solve with its neighbors, and diplomacy may still work there, once we set a policy to follow…

Barnabas Path

Oct. 9, 2017, 6:58 p.m.

“When individuals or businesses need to enforce an agreement, they can go to court; in the case of nations, they usually must resort to war.” 

I wonder why you need to paint both Iran and North Korea with such a simplistic ‘Go to war, or else’ theory?  I find it amusing, though appalling, that geopolitical elitists are so often fond of beating the Drums Of War, whose penalties they, by privilege, escape, while leaving the brutality to faceless numbers that they smugly proclaim to have excised with their prescient intelligence.

You keep conflating the two issues – North Korea and Iran – because, I suppose, you can, without logical justification.  Are you seriously suggesting that Rouhani is an equal to Kim Jong-un in concern?  And, regarding the quote above, don’t we have an “agreement” with Iran?  Though there is absolutely no evidence of a violation on Iran’s part, President Trump simply decides it’s a “bad deal” in need of “renegotiation”.  That is his inner chiseling real estate investor-self talking.  Using your logic, Iran should declare war on the US.  Such logic is exceptionally disquieting.

You keep referring to the two situations as “similar” and “same” yet offer nothing to explain the logic of your claim.  On the one hand, we know indisputably that North Korea is detonating nuclear weapons underground.  Iran, on the other hand, has met each demand of international inspectors and complies by not, currently, pursuing a nuclear option, even though they have every right as a nation-state to defend themselves against a bellicose nuclear-armed Israel.

“In the case of North Korea, the US faces the stark choice of accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, or waging a war…. The US now has the same choice to make with regard to Iran.”

I think it is time to rethink our geopolitical allegiances, at least when it comes to Iran.  Look at the last 17 years of our blind acceptance to the Wolfowitz/Perle/Feith “A Clean Break” postulation.  How has that been working for you?  If you are an Israeli hard-liner, couldn’t be better.  If you are a parent of one of the 7,000 dead Americans, if you are a taxpayer asked to pay for the nearly $2T in cost, if you are among the millions of innocent civilians killed, maimed, or displaced by the chaos we have wrought, then not-so-hot-so.

We have been led by neo-con’s, and their pseudo-intellectual geo-political theorists, to the gates of hell.  Maybe we should disregard their entreaties to open them.

Michael Sojka

Oct. 9, 2017, 6:26 p.m.

I guess you don’t trust the inspections that would be eliminated in the event of “no deal” with the Iranians.  So far, those inspections have shown Iranian compliance.  The ability to inspect seems valuable to me.  Why did you not even mention that?

Stephen Lawrenz

Oct. 9, 2017, 3 p.m.

Dr. Friedman,  How I wish you were the Secretary of State and had the full attention of the President.  Your article simply and fully explains this particular situation and shows that there are no good options left in dealing with these two countries.  Our best hope is to let these two nations bankrupt themselves building weapons, and teaching our children how to duck and cover under their desks at school as I was taught as a child.  The fantasy of a desk protecting us from a nuclear blast is at least less costly than more futile attempts at making people who only want to be left alone mad.  Thank you for being a voice of reason in a world running around in circles.