The Duck of Minerva

Conceding vs. Standing Firm: A new trend in US proliferation policy?

31 May 2005

Cross posted at Discord and Elaboration:

Last week I (sort of) complained about the recent move by the US to allow Iran to begin the membership ascension process to the WTO in exchange for a further (not permanent) freeze on uranium enrichment until August, when presumably the EU3 can hammer out a more permanent deal with the Persian power. The US has refused to directly take part in the negotiations, but has worked with the EU3 in order to deploy a number of carrots and sticks. Agreeing to not veto Iranian ascension to the WTO (which has been a perennial event) seems to me to be an awfully big carrot, one that Iran has coveted for a while and which allows them to pontificate on the previous injustice of not allowing them to join (quote or link here), considering that all the US/EU got in return was an extension of the temporary freeze until August. (For a different, yet equally critical take on the recent agreement on the grounds that the US still lacks a coherent approach towards Iran check out this editorial in the FT today.)

Thursday, the Financial Times reported that the US may be signaling to the North Koreans that it would consider parallel bilateral talks with Pyongyang‚–something the North Koreans covet and the US has vigorously denied them since the crisis broke out. Again, this can be viewed as an example of the US giving in to a key demand in order to simply extend the bargaining game rather than extract any crucial concessions that further its interests. Both scenarios possibly illustrate the decrease in the US’s bargaining position (or, more appropriately, the actual reality of this position all along) vis-a-vis these two potential nuclear powers (let’s assume for the moment North Korea doesn’t have a workable weapon, which is a big assumption).

In both cases these states have had to give up nothing essentially in return for concrete concessions that they highly value. In each case the US has reversed its previous stance on issues of high salience (granted, in terms of the WTO we have our reasons for wanting Iran in, see Peter Howard’s take on this which I largely agree with‚—but the US certainly has not wanted to deal with North Korea bilaterally, that much is clear). These moves make me wonder whether or not the US has come to the realization that their bargaining position is not as strong as they previously thought. In the case of North Korea they have not managed to make any kind of progress, with the North Korean’s continuing with enrichment as well as potentially gearing up for an underground test explosion. China refuses to play a decisive role, something that many agree is necessary in order to force North Korea to cease development. Iran does not seem to be scared of a US invasion/regime change given that the situation in Iraq has, if anything, signaled to potential adversaries the severe limitations of the US military to invade, occupy, and secure foreign lands—especially to manage two of these operations at the same time. Furthermore, Iran continuously threatened to accelerate its program if the US submitted them to the Security Council for economic sanctions. Economics seems to be of more concern to the Iranians than invasion, yet yesterday’s move essentially rewards Iran economically for a simply extension and not a permanent deal. In both cases the targets of US compellance have stood firm and essentially won concessions while the US has given in.

It will be interesting to see what each target—Iran and North Korea—learns from these recent moves. What conclusions will they draw from recent US behavior? Will further concessions in the case of Iran reassure the North Koreans that the US can be bargained with? Will Iran now expect direct negotiations with the US if they take place with North Korea? Certainly one could view US moves in this way, as a deliberate strategy to get these two states to trust the US more and to believe that their cooperation will be rewarded in kind by the US. However, the US should be aware of the fact that such signals cannot be counted on to objectively convey that they are trustworthy or credible partners. Both North Korea and Iran must interpret US actions through their own lenses that are influenced by previous encounters and the images they already have of the US. Additionally, the realm of international politics doesn’t lend itself easily to trust given the high stakes and the incentives others have to misrepresent their intentions.

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