Without Deterrence, America Can't Confront Nuclear Mavericks

Victory Day parade in Pyongyang. Flickr/Creative Commons/Stefan Krasowski

Not every callout of a belligerent rival is a step toward war.

To effectively counter the nuclear ambitions of determined proliferators, a strategy of compellence is essential, even if it takes place within the framework of diplomacy and negotiations. Determined nuclear proliferators are very determined: they are bent on attaining the strategic value they attribute to a nuclear weapons capability, and are loath to give up the pursuit. There is no win-win solution—either they will achieve the capability or will be compelled to give it up. North Korea and Iran secretly pursued nuclear-weapons capabilities in violation of their NPT commitments, and they are both aggressive regional actors, with a record of threatening their neighbors, including existentially. Their behavior elicits fears that the nuclear capabilities they seek are for offensive (power accumulation) purposes, rather than as a means to buttress a defensive foreign policy to ensure their own security and survival. And they will not give up the capabilities unless the cost is extremely high.

When leading international actors chose diplomacy as the strategy by which to compel both Iran and North Korea to reverse course in the nuclear realm, they forgot that it was an exercise in compellence, and instead embraced the “give and take” norm that does apply to many negotiations. But not to these negotiations. While it was only pressure that got these two proliferators to the table in the first place, in both cases the negotiators did not follow through with their pressure tactics in the negotiation itself. The respective deals—for North Korea in 1994 and Iran in 2015—were partial at best, and did not reflect a strategic about-face in the nuclear realm for either proliferator. Both Iran and North Korea continue to harbor nuclear ambitions post-deal as well.

In fact, the problems associated with keeping these states in line in the post-deal period have proven no less challenging than before the deals were secured. And if key international players continue to treat the Iran nuclear deal as a solution, while turning a blind eye to Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear capabilities (currently most noticeable in the missile realm), ironically, in the post-deal years it will be easier for Iran to move forward.

Ongoing vigilance, including continued application of pressure, is essential to keep determined proliferators far from the nuclear threshold. But there has been a noticeable reluctance on the part of strong international actors to respond to provocations with determination, due to what they view as the risk of escalation. In the case of Iran, the Obama administration hoped that Iran would recognize this American goodwill and desist from further provocations. But North Korea and Iran have both demonstrated in their respective arenas that it does not work that way. Indeed, the lack of response to provocations seems only to foster additional aggression, as the proliferator feels increasingly emboldened by the fact that it is given a relatively free ride.

In its short time in power, the Trump administration has already taken action to try to reverse this trend—vis-à-vis both Iran and North Korea. And not surprisingly, pundits have taken issue with some of its initial rhetoric, which is aimed to restore U.S. deterrence in the face of ongoing Iranian and North Korean provocations.

When it responded to Iran’s troubling ballistic-missile test in late January—which tested a missile that could reach all of western Europe as well as carry a nuclear warhead—by “putting Iran on notice,” the administration was criticized for risking escalation to military conflict. Pundits and analysts claimed that those who support a tougher stance on Iran are actually advocating escalation, sanctions and confrontation that will lead to war. Not surprisingly, they offer no alternative of their own, other than doing nothing.

It should be remembered that highlighting the prospect of war as the only result of forcefully confronting Iran’s defiance and bad behavior was a prominent feature of the Obama administration’s attempt to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the American public. The choice that Obama presented was either to accept the deal (exactly as it had been negotiated), or go to war. The administration refused to acknowledge that had it negotiated differently, the P5+1 could have extracted a better deal. The dichotomous choice was not correct then, and it is a misrepresentation now. In fact, there is an equal, if not better, chance that Iran will be deterred by new and firm messages indicating that the Trump administration will no longer turn a blind eye to Iran’s provocations.