A paper to the “International conference on nuclear disarmament issues: global and regional aspects”, 31 August to 1 September, 2017 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

CREATING NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY FOR NORTH KOREA: Lessons Learned from the Iran Nuclear Negotiations.

Dr. Tarja Cronberg

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI

States with nuclear weapon programs are different. Iran and North Korea differ not only in geography, history and state governance, the two state´s nuclear programs have different backgrounds and different goals. As an example, in 2003, when the US with allies intervened in Iraq, Iran and North Korea reacted in completely opposite ways. Iran made an advanced proposal to the US to negotiate, not only the nuclear program, but also peace initiatives in the Middle East. North Korea decided to exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and access nuclear weapons.


Inspite of the differences, lessons can be learned from the twelve years of Iran negotiations , which lead to a diplomatic solution in July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive plan of action, the JCPOA. This is not to say that negotiation tactics are transferable from one case to another. My claim is that the Iran negotiations include some critical elements that are present in all efforts to prevent a country from accessing nuclear weapons. I will concentrate on three particular aspects. The first is the access to a negotiating table. No matter how hostile the relations between the involved states, a continous meeting arena at regular intervals is crucial. The second is the goal of regime change. To renounce a nuclear program is not compatible with regime change policy of the opposing party. The third dimension is the role of preconditions for negotiations. Preconditions, in the Iran case, prevented for a long time any meaningful negotiations.


The Missing Table

The potential for a negotiated solution for North Korea is frequently aired in the press, particularly by the super powers involved. More and more analysts do not see a military intervention as possible or desirable, in spite of the fact that ”all options are on the table”. Diplomacy is gaining more and more support and there is no lack of offers and proposals. The six party talks, which ended around 2008, are often mentioned. The UN Secretary General has offered UN support for negotiations. Sweden, as a neutral country, har offered to mediate. The EU´s High Representative of foreign and security policy Federica Moghereni has indicated European support. Furthermore, there are a number of track-two and background contacts going on between think tanks, peace institutes and foundations and other informal groups involving also government officials.

In spite of all this talk, there are no serious negotiations going on. There is no table, around which to meet and to explore the interests of the other party and the potential basis for an agreement. This cannot be done in the media, nor in informal contacts how important they else might be. Here the Iran case shows a vital difference.

The 12 years of negotiations took place in four phases (see Table 1). In spite of changing arenas and strategies there was always a table for common discussions. It was an ad hoc multilateral table, created first by the E3, later replaced by the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, coordinated by the EU.

Here the role of the Europeans and the European union was critical as a coordinator throughout the whole process. As stated by a high-level White House official at the time in an interview ”without the European Union, no Iran deal”. The EU was seen by all the parties as a better alternative than the US, althoug for different reasons. To have a stable party without a direct role in the conflict as responsible for framing negotiations is a definitive asset and a condition for continous meetings among the involved parties. Furthermore, the EU Security Strategy of 2003 defined ”effective multilateralism” as the framework for the EU´s foreign and security policy.

In 2003 three European Foreign Ministers (France, Germany and the UK) took the initiative. Negotiations were started and two agreements were signed. A first in Teheran in October 2003 and a following in Paris in November 2004. The negotiations were successful as Iran agreed to suspend enrichment, although only on a temporary and voluntary basis. Iran also initiated the application of the Additional Protocol of the IAEA safeguards agreement.

Early in 2005 the negotiations were at crossroads. The Supreme Leader was critical of the Paris agreement. The Americans were about to get involved, the Iranians threatened to restart enrichment and the Iranian opposition group MEK claimed that Iran has nuclear weapons. In June, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors found that Iran was in non-compliance with its safeguards agreement. Iran was to be reported to the Security Council.

The P5+1 [i]was formed in 2006 when China, Russia and the United States joined the EU in a proposal to Iran in June. In July, the Security Council approved resolution 1696 stating that suspension of uranium enrichment would be mandatory under the UN Charter´s Chapter VII, requiring Iran´s full cooperation with the IAEA and threatening with economic sanctions. Although the main action in 2006-2010 was in the Security Council, the P5+1 continued to negotiate with Iran and was responsible for the concrete proposals as well as the follow-up on the earlier negotiations by the E3. While the Security Council never formalized a mandate for the P5+1, the resolutions include endorsements of the P5+1 role. There was continuity and a table.

After the election of President Obama, there were a number of initiatives and negotiations (the “swap deal”, the Tehran declaration) but no agreements. A November 2011 IAEA report on the “possible military dimension” worsened the already hostile relations with Iran. The US and the EU approved unilateral sanctions in addition to the Security Council sanctions. Negotiations had come to a standstill. However, the P5+1 agreed to meet in late January 2012 in Turkey and the fact that a date for the next meeting during 2011-2013 was always agreed to was seen as a success.

The 2013 Iranian presidential elections were a game changer. When President Obama, in the context of the UN General Assembly in September 2013, talked to President Rouhani over the phone, the scene was set for more constructive negotiations. Before this, already in 2011 the Supreme Leader had approved bilateral Iran-US negotiations mediated by the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos upon the request of Obama. The bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran would not have been possible without the framework of the P5+1 and the role of the EU as the coordinator framing the negotiations.

The ultimate proof of the importance of this framework is built into the approval of the JCPOA, both in Washington and in Tehran. The Obama administration defended the deal in Congress by underlining that a harsher deal with additional sanctions was not an alternative. Should the deal be reopened, the partners of the P5+1 would withdraw their support. Similarly, the Iranian parliament was critical of negotiations with the US. At a hearing in the Parliament the negotiators underlined that the negotiations were not carried out with the US but with the P5+1.

No Regime Change on the Table

Using a nuclear program with a suspected military dimension as a pretext for

regime change marginalizes the goal of non-proliferation. A regime will not,

at least not as a rule, negotiate its own exit. A regime change policy in the Iran

case led to a situation where serious proposals from Iran were ignored. President Bush did not even answer the comprehensive proposal from the reformist president Khatami in 2004 dealing not only with the nuclear issue but also terrorism, stability in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine peace process.

How does one distinguish between non-proliferation and regime change

policies? In 2003-2005 the US had a policy of regime change, while the EU negotiated to achieve a deal. The US regime change policy was in the open. In 2002 President Bush had already name Iran, Iraq and North Korea the “axis of evil”. Furthermore, the US National Security Strategy of 2002 stated that the US must be able to stop “rogue states” before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction. This was followed by President Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2003, where he stated that the outlaw regimes seeking WMD were the gravest danger for the US. The focus had shifted from the potential bombs to the undesired regimes.

When President Obama reached out to the Iranians, they doubted his intentions, and did not even answer. Later, by abolishing the precondition and indicating that a small pilot-scale enrichment program might be acceptable, Obama could already in 2011 convince the Supreme Leader that regime change was no longer on the table. Negotiations could take place with mutual respect without the fear of regime change. In addition, president Obama did all through the negotiations underline that the deal was transactional, not transformational.

Regime change has also been present in the North Korean case, up until the very last days in August 2017, as president Trump has restated the well-known phase that “all options are on the table”. The vicinity to Seoul, Chinese objections and the black history of cases, such as Iraq or Libya, where outside powers hade enforced regime change have so far prevented the military alternative. As for the leaders of the “axis of Evil” the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein during their last days do not create positive incentives for a government to abolish its nuclear program and risk, in the aftermath, both regime change and death.

There is a certain logic to the fact that if a country is named as evil and its regime is threatened by military action, it will seek to access nuclear weapons. As for the nuclear weapon states this will act as “deterrence”. North Korea has become an example of how a small and an otherwise marginal country through nuclear weapons can achieve not only deterrence but also international prestige. To have regime change on the agenda for nuclear negotiations, is not only detrimental in order to achieve nonproliferation, it creates dangerous examples for others to follow. If a party, as in the Iran case, starts out with a regime change policy, it will be take time and maybe a new president as in the Obama case, to convince the proliferator, that regime change is not on the table.

Preconditions Prevent Progress

The Iran negotiations took 12 years. As the global interest in nuclear energy increases and more and more states have access to nuclear technology and knowledge, the risk of proliferation grows. To carry out 12-year negotiation process each time there are

suspicions and allegations about nuclear weapons intentions would hardly be appropriate and not in line with effective multilateralism. Shortcuts are not only necessary but also possible.

In the Iran case, the US preconditions policy, requiring the suspension of enrichment

before the negotiations, prevented a negotiated agreement in 2005 and lead to reporting Iran to the Security Council. Interestingly, the EU and US agreed on the end result, zero enrichment. The disagreement was about suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations. In 2003–2005 the Europeans did achieve temporary suspension and Iran did accept the Additional Protocol. The E3 negotiated without preconditions. When the US joined in 2005, zero enrichment became, not a result but a precondition. The Europeans accepted this and the Security Council confirmed this later.

Seen from the Iranian side, the situation was different. The Iranians would have to suspend something they considered their legitimate right. The negotiations were, after the US joined in 2005, at a stalemate until the Obama administration in 2009.

With President Obama the policy changed. Zero enrichment as a precondition

was abolished and more dynamic negotiations could start leading to an agreement. The Iran case demonstrates the obvious. Acceptance of a precondition—like the suspension of enrichment—before negotiations would have been a sign of weakness. To give up your core interest without getting anything in return except negotiations with an uncertain outcome was not an alternative for the Iranians. Had President Obama not abolished the precondition, frustrated, in reality frozen, negotiations might still be ongoing.

To some extent “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a similar kind of precondition for North Korea as the “suspension of uranium enrichment” was for Iran. Iran defended its right to enrich, which is not prohibited by the NPT article VI (although in the US perspective nor is it specifically allowed). North Korea has crossed the line to nuclear weapons and sees these weapons as critical for its safety. Given that it is no longer an NPT member, enforcing of NPT rules would seem legally difficult. In spite of these differences, in both cases accepting the preconditions before the negotiations would indicate political weakness. You do not give up your critical- sometimes even the only- asset and bargaining power before negotiations. The political consequences of this would be disastrous for any country.


When dealing with proliferation of nuclear weapons the international community should learn from past mistakes and transfer general factors leading to positive outcomes from one case to another. To summarize, proliferation cases need a stable table and a more or less neutral facilitator to frame the negotiations. In the North Korean case the partners of the six-party talks are too strong stakeholders in the process. What is now needed, is a common table. Could Mongolia provide this?

Furthermore, the goal of regime change is not compatible with the goal of non-proliferation. To remove the doubt of a regime change policy requires considerable concessions to create a constructive atmosphere for negotiations. How can the US administration convince North Korea that regime change is no longer on the table?

Finally, preconditions dealing with the central elements of the future negotiations are detrimental to the results and prolong the start of the negotiations. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is out of question as a precondition at this time. Maybe also as an outcome in the short-term. What are the possible concessions on each side to provide for constructive negotiations in order to avoid a military solution, which no one wants?

Reference: Cronberg Tarja, Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside the EU Negotiations, Routledge, 2017.
















[i] Also called E3/EU+3 indicating the three Eu countries, the EU and China, Russia and the US.