Photo: Mahmood Hosseini/AFP/Getty Images
A long-range Qadr ballistic missile is launched in the Alborz mountain range in northern Iran on March 9, 2016. Iran said its armed forces had fired two more ballistic missiles as it continued tests in defiance of US warnings.Photo: Mahmood Hosseini/AFP/Getty Images
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North Korea Tested an ICBM. Iran Is Next.

‘Autocracies are less likely than democracies to sign international agreements and when they do, they are more likely to cheat. But we never seem to learn our lesson.’

Matthew Kroenig
July 27, 2017
Photo: Mahmood Hosseini/AFP/Getty Images
A long-range Qadr ballistic missile is launched in the Alborz mountain range in northern Iran on March 9, 2016. Iran said its armed forces had fired two more ballistic missiles as it continued tests in defiance of US warnings.Photo: Mahmood Hosseini/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable (ICBM), capable of reaching Alaska. It is believed that Pyongyang now has enough nuclear material for up to 30 nuclear weapons, missiles that can easily range U.S. bases and allies in Asia, and, in a couple of years, it will possess an ICBM capable of holding at risk the continental United States. This would make North Korea only the third U.S. adversary (after Russia and China) with the ability to threaten nuclear war against the United States and its allies.

If we are not careful, Iran may be next.

The North Korean nuclear crisis began in the 1990s. At the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but international inspectors immediately found discrepancies in North Korea’s declarations. Washington suspected Pyongyang of harboring a secret program to reprocess plutonium for the production of nuclear weapons. (Along with uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing is one of two methods to produce nuclear fuel for either nuclear reactors, or for nuclear weapons.)

President Bill Clinton’s administration prepared a military strike on North Korea’s nuclear reactor, but the operation was called off due to hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough. Republicans in Congress derided the Clinton administration’s naivety for its engagement with a nuclear-seeking totalitarian regime, but a deal was eventually struck. Under the 1994 “Agreed Framework” North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for economic aid and other benefits. Some of the deal’s proponents argued that the details of the agreement did not really matter, however, because it was only a matter of time before the Kim regime in North Korea fell, solving the problem for us.

We now know that North Korea cheated on the agreement almost from day one, launching a secret uranium-enrichment program with the help of sensitive nuclear assistance from Pakistan.

The Bush administration confronted North Korea with its suspicions in 2002, setting off a decade of bipartisan policy failures. Bush and Obama increased sanctions and engaged in futile negotiations, but it was not enough.

In October 2006, North Korea conducted its first of six nuclear tests. Since that time, it has conducted over 70 missile tests, including 17 this year. Some take comfort that some of these tests are failures, but practice makes perfect. With every test, successful or not, North Korea further ensconces itself in the nuclear club.

There were flickerings of renewed diplomacy and even a couple of agreements. In 2007, the six parties agreed to an “action plan” for North Korean denuclearization. And in February 2012, there was a “Leap Day deal.” But both unraveled in a spectacular fashion. The Leap Day deal, for example, prohibited missile tests, but just weeks after the agreement was signed, North Korea conducted a satellite launch, scuttling the accord. (Recall Sputnik: The technology required to launch a satellite into space is exactly the same needed to launch an ICBM.)

Of course, hopes of regime change did not materialize, and Kim Jong Un is the third generation in the Kim family to rule the Hermit Kingdom with an iron fist.

President Donald Trump assumed office amid a bipartisan consensus that North Korea should now be a foremost national-security priority and the administration has conducted a comprehensive review that will leave no options off the table.

It is likely that Trump’s strategy will contain two key pillars. First, Washington will seek to increase diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on North Korea with the goal of forcing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and persuading them to limit and then roll back their nuclear and missile program. Recent moves in this direction include secondary sanctions on Chinese firms and banks doing business with the North. Second, realizing that this could be a difficult and lengthy task but that serious threats exist in the here and now, the United States will take steps to defend itself and its allies. This will include the deployment of missile defenses, such as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. It will also include the development of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to track North Korea’s nuclear assets and offensive strike capabilities to make sure that if North Korea uses a nuclear weapon, it will not be permitted to use a second or a third.

This is not a great set of options, but it is better than the alternatives. I remain hopeful, but others insist that the game is over. They claim we need to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, despite the fact that several consecutive U.S. presidents have declared that a nuclear North Korea is “unacceptable.”


The Iranian nuclear crisis began in the 1990s when Tehran cheated on its NPT commitments and began a secret uranium-enrichment program with the help of Pakistan. The program was revealed in 2002, leading to over a decade of increased sanctions, unproductive negotiations, and an ever-expanding Iranian uranium-enrichment and missile program. Israel threatened military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and President Barack Obama declared “all options on the table,” but, once again the prospect of a diplomatic resolution proved irresistible. In 2015, a deal was struck and the Obama administration hailed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as one of its crowning achievements.

Unlike the Agreed Framework, however, which prohibited North Korea from making nuclear fuel altogether, the JCPOA gives Iran’s uranium enrichment program an international stamp of approval. The deal places limits on Iranian enrichment, but those restrictions begin to expire after 10 years (or roughly eight years from last week).

Some of the deal’s proponents argue that we should not worry about these sunset clauses because Iran will be a fundamentally different country when the deal expires. Years of cooperation with the West and integration in the international economy under the terms of the deal, they argue, will help topple the mullahs and usher to power a more reasonable, and possibly even a pro-Western and democratic, government. Hope springs eternal, but we have been wish-casting for democratic uprisings in Iran and North Korea for many years, and neither appears close to becoming Switzerland any time soon.

Few experts expect this deal to resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. In a recent workshop in Washington, D.C., several other specialists and I (including those who had favored and opposed the deal) forecasted the future of the accord. We all assessed that Iran’s ultimate goal is to have its cake and eat it too: sanctions relief and a robust nuclear and missile program. All but one of us believed that Iran would cheat on the deal before it expires. The only one who believed the deal would endure reasoned that the mullahs had every incentive to abide by the accord because it was such a sweetheart deal. They can revitalize their economy with a decade of sanctions relief and then recommence their march to the bomb once the limits expire. In short, none of us were optimistic.

Moreover, the deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic-missile program. Iran has the most sophisticated ballistic-missile program in the Middle East. The Obama administration made a strategic decision to exclude ballistic missiles from negotiations because they thought including them would have been too hard. Iran has conducted several ballistic-missile tests since the nuclear deal went into effect. It now possesses medium-range ballistic missiles capable of ranging the Middle East (including Israel) and Southeastern Europe. And earlier this year, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency estimated that Iran could have the ability to deploy an operational ICBM by 2020.

We are in a tough spot, but, unlike in North Korea, we do have the ability to stop Iran from going nuclear. As an adviser to then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, I recommended tearing up the Iran deal on day one. That moment has passed. At present, I believe the best we can do is to do to Iran what Iran is doing to us: Abide by the strict terms of the deal, but compete in every other area not covered by the deal. The Trump administration should ratchet up economic pressure on the still-economically-vulnerable clerical regime: new ballistic-missile tests, new sanctions; new human-rights abuses, new sanctions. We should also seek to push back on Iran’s malign influence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.

What is the ultimate purpose of this increased pressure? The Trump administration is still completing its Iran-policy review. Some argue that we should use the increased pressure to force Iran back to the table and seek to increase the limits on the sunset clause to 25 or 50 years.

This might be worthwhile. Or, like the previous deals with North Korea and Iran, renegotiations might prove counterproductive. I am a political scientist by training. Political science is not physics. We don’t have many valid covering laws. But one thing we are pretty sure we know is that autocracies are less likely than democracies to sign international agreements, and when they do, they are more likely to cheat. But we never seem to learn our lesson. North Korea cheated on the agreed framework and several follow-up accords, Russia is currently violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and I would not bet my life that the JCPOA will die a natural death.

Yet, still some will argue for continued diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, many critics initially scoffed at Trump’s calls for “renegotiating” of the Iran deal, but today even E.U. officials and Democrats in Washington are calling for “additional negotiations,” which is a distinction without a difference.

Other experts in Washington have made a renewed press for an explicit policy of regime change in Iran, not through military force, but through increased pressure on the mullahs and increased support to opposition groups.

Regardless of the path we choose, we must be absolutely clear that we are willing to do whatever it takes to stop Iran from acquiring enough nuclear material for even a single nuclear weapon. If and when Tehran cheats on the accord or the limits expire, we will snap back sanctions per the terms of the JCPOA (although this admittedly is a thin reed). And, if necessary, we are willing to use force if necessary to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA put us in a bad spot and we are left with few good options. But, fortunately, we still have alternatives to living with another North Korea, but this time in the volatile Middle East.


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Matthew Kroenig is an Associate Professor and International Relations Field Chair in the Department of Government at Georgetown and a Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at The Atlantic Council. He formerly worked as a special adviser on defense policy and strategy for Iran in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat.