Perkovich: Proliferation Trilogy: North Korea, Iran, and India

George Perkovich, a leading specialist on nuclear non-proliferation, says that among the current problems with North Korea, India, and Iran, Iran is the most important to resolve because the Iranians are trying to defy international opinion and produce a nuclear weapons capability after having been exposed in the act of trying.

August 13, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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George Perkovich, a leading specialist on nuclear non-proliferation, says that among the current problems with North Korea, India, and Iran, Iran is the most important to resolve because the Iranians are trying to defy international opinion and produce a nuclear weapons capability after having been exposed in the act of trying. “If the Iranians get away with acquiring nuclear weapon capability after having gotten caught breaking the rules that would be a really disastrous situation.” But he rules out military action, and instead calls for even closer international pressure.

There are three major issues on questions of nuclear proliferation right now: the agreement reached in February for North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for, essentially, help from the outside world; secondly is the continuing defiance by Iran to the Security Council which has been trying to get it to suspend its enrichment activities; thirdly is the U.S.-India agreement on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. On these issues which is the most important right now? 

I think Iran is the most important by far. What we’ve been trying to do from the first Bush administration to the Clinton administration to this Bush administration is, in essence, roll back the clock, get a state that has already challenged the international community and we’re trying to get them to stop. That’s very, very difficult.  It’s as if on Lexington Avenue there is a TV shop and Iran got caught breaking the window. They were reaching for the TV, and the alarms went off, the cops showed up, and the cops said “Freeze!  Don’t touch the TV.”  And the Iranians freeze but they don’t step away from the window. And then nobody does anything. The Iranians were caught before they had, in essence, violated the rules to get what they wanted.  If the Iranians look at the international community and they say “You know what?  You’re not going to do anything”, and they grab the TV, pull it out of the window, and walk away, and nothing happens, then the international system is going to be in big, big trouble. 

And North Korea?

North Korea’s situation was different. The cops showed up one day and there was a hole in the window and there was a TV gone so they scour the city trying to find the TV and put it back; that almost never happens. It’s a very difficult, very different situation. Because the Iranian situation arose after we should have learned the lessons from North Korea, if the Iranians then get away with acquiring nuclear weapon capability after having gotten caught breaking the rules that would be a really disastrous situation. 

And India?

The Indians are saying “We’re not stealing a television, we bought a black and white vacuum tube television in the 60’s and then got another one in the 70’s; we just want to trade in our old TV for a flat screen plasma TV.”  And the rules you have now say “We can’t make that trade-in, you won’t let us into the store.  And the Bush administration comes along and says “Let’s let bygones be bygones. India acquired nuclear weapons, never signed a Non-Proliferation Treaty, didn’t break the rules; isn’t it better that they actually have a modern TV that really works.”  Other people are saying “No, India is actually is breaking the rules.”  But that is not nearly as dire a situation as the one with Iran. The one with Iran is the real challenge.

Will the agreement with North Korea work?

No, I never thought it would work, but that’s all right in a sense. What I mean by that is that I’ve never seen a theory that was persuasive as to why North Korea would ultimately give up its last bit of nuclear material, its last bit of leverage.  Nuclear weapons, plutonium, are the strategic assets that the North Korean leadership has to leverage for its own economic benefits, for its perceived security; so I never quite understood why it would give up the last increment of that. Why I say that’s ok is that I’ve felt for a long time that the object should be to persuade and, in essence, bribe North Korea to quit making things worse. It strikes me that North Korea has plenty of reasons to trade incremental progress for oil, for money, for recognition, and so forth, and whether or not they ever give it all up, that would be great if it happens, but the world is still going to be better off if they’re moving in the direction that this agreement points them.

On Iran, implicit in everything you’ve said is you believe Iran’s goal from the start was to get nuclear weapons capability right?

Yeah, but I want to use your word and underline “capability.”  In other words, I think a capability to produce nuclear weapons is in the Iranian view different from getting an actual nuclear weapon.  And my interpretation of Iranian decision making is that the leaders haven’t decided  that “Yes, we need to fabricate a nuclear weapon,” but they certainly want the capability to produce fuel for one.

Why do you think the Iranians have been so stubborn in not agreeing to another suspension of their nuclear enrichment?

I think there are a couple reasons. One is that Iranian decision making is very fractured, there’s tremendous fear and mistrust amongst the different elite groups in Iran. When you go there, when you talk with them, they’re all looking over their shoulders, they’re all worried about each other.  They got caught, as I said, in 2002-2003, as having broken rules that many of them didn’t know they had broken, so a lot of the officials and others that were doing the negotiating, didn’t know what was going to be found by the IAEA.  They were defensive, they were on their heels for a time, and so they needed a couple of years to regroup and figure out “Ok, what’s our position? What’s our policy?”, and it appears that the one thing they all agreed on, all the different factions as it were, was “We have a right to enrich uranium and the full fuel cycle, and so we’re not going to give up that right.” 

I don’t think there is such a right, but that’s the position they took, and that unified all of the different factions, and so it’s been a kind of deeply held position, which is “We’re not going to stop enriching.” They realize that they had agreed to suspend at one point but that plays to the advantage of their opponents, the Americans and the Europeans, because as long as they’re suspended, their opponents would drag out talks forever.  They decided, “Let’s break out of the suspension.” They said “Let’s see how the world reacts, because if we break the suspension and we start these activities, but the world reacts in such a way that imposes a lot of pain or cost, we can always come back to it, we can always revisit it; let’s see what happens.”  Well, they saw what happened. The response has been not negligible, but very slow and incremental.

All right, you’re in the White House, you have sixteen months to go. Do you do anything more than just stick with the Security Council?

I think there are a couple of basic precepts.  One is that what most affects Iranian decision making and sensibilities is a unified Security Council. In other words, when the United States and Europe are acting harshly against Iran, but it’s just us, then that’s music to the Iranians ears.  They know that movie, it’s been there for twenty nine years, and they can resist it, but when Russia, China, and the broader international community saying the Iranians are beyond the pale, they know they have gone too far. So that unity is worth maintaining because it matters to Iran.  When I look at the probable effects of military strikes for example, my analysis is we’d actually be worse off after such strikes than we are today, or we would be even if Iran had a rudimentary enrichment capability.  So I think it’s absolutely right to continue to insist on suspension, and Iran must suspend this activity before it gets any of the positive inducements that are on the table. If they go ahead and master the enrichment process, then I would pull those positive inducements off the table and say “Well, all of the stuff about economic cooperation, technological cooperation, was predicated on your adhering to the UN resolution and suspending, but if you start producing highly enriched uranium, and then you stop after you’ve mastered it, then what’s in it for us?”  We should not keep threatening military strikes, but if we said, “Look we understand that the world doesn’t want another military conflict in the Persian Gulf” we would reassure Russia and China and others whose support and cooperation we need to tighten the screws on Iran.  One of the things that’s holding those people back and others back is fear that this is all a precursor to going to war with Iran.

Lastly, on India again.  Where does it stand?  The U.S. Congress has to approve?

Where things stand now is a really complicated. There was a tentative deal in principle run by the U.S. government and the Indian government.  Congress then wrote and passed legislation called the Hyde Act saying “When you go off to negotiate the fine print of this deal, what’s called a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement or a “123” Agreement, here are the parameters we want you to satisfy.”  That was last fall. In the ensuing months the Bush administration and the Indian government had been negotiating this new 123 Agreement.  They claimed a couple weeks ago to have finished that agreement.  The Indians now have to, with the United States  almost acting as their lawyer, go to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, a cartel of forty-five countries that the United States  helped create in the 1970’s  and say “Ok folks, we want to exempt India from the rules that we established and treat them as a special case.”  Then India has to go to the IAEA and negotiate a Safeguards Agreement, whereby they establish how the IAEA will monitor and verify the activities in the plants that India has designated for peaceful purposes as part of this deal.  When all of that is done, and I apologize for how complicated it is, but when the IAEA and India have an agreement, and the Nuclear Supplier’s Group has an agreement, then the U.S. government will come back to Congress and say “Ok, here’s the final Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with India for Congress.  Vote on it.”

Do you think it’s a good agreement?

No.  I think it’s flawed for a number of reasons.  I have colleagues and friends in the non-proliferation community who think any such agreement with India would be a disaster.  I think India’s economic development and overall development is so important from a world historical point of view that we should do a lot to facilitate it.  My problem is this particular agreement is first of all, the administration failed to establish criteria under which countries which haven’t signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty could come in to a broader non-proliferation set of rules and not be outside of this system. The three countries that haven’t signed the NPT are India, Israel, and Pakistan.  What we should have done in my view is say “Here are criteria for each of those that if each of those countries met, they could get some form of increased nuclear cooperation with us.”  Instead of offering criteria like that, the administration is just going to change the rules for India. There aren’t even really criteria here. The United States is just saying “They’re our buddies, they’re our friends.  Let’s change the rules.”  And it leaves Pakistan and Israel still out in no-man’s land.  Why is that important?  If you add criteria, such as a  country is a democracy, it doesn’t support terrorist organizations, it has tight nuclear export controls, India would meet them and Pakistan wouldn’t meet them today, but it would give Pakistan an incentive to change behavior because it could then qualify and the same with Israel. 

But by treating India as an exception, it just reflects the Bush administration’s general disdain for a rule-based international system. It’s typical of this overall policy of “We’re going to do what we want and the heck with what others think and we’ll basically use our power to change rules when we think they need to be changed.” There are other problems with it too. The main one is that the administration didn’t really seek and didn’t get any agreement by India to limit its production of nuclear weapons, so at this point in world history I think we’re at a point where we ought to be able to say “No country is building additional nuclear weapons, no country needs additional nuclear weapons.” We should be able to say that we understand that India and Pakistan have theirs but at least let’s stop producing more of those things.  We didn’t get it and we didn’t seek it because some in the administration actually want India to build more nuclear weapons as a counter to China. I think that’s a mistake.