On Iran and North Korea


The right has had a field day with Bill Clinton’s recent Korea excursion, claiming that, despite the mission’s obvious success, it was a squandering of presidential prestige to sit down with a thug like Kim Jong-il. But Haaretz drew a very different conclusion.

Diplomatic conditions in East Asia differ from those in the Middle East, but even Israelis can learn lessons from Clinton’s trip. The first lesson is that a policy of boycotting and isolation is a simple solution to complex situations, but in many cases it achieves the opposite of what is desired. The Bush administration demonstrated diplomatic toughness toward North Korea, and this did not influence the country to modify its behavior; Kim responded by manufacturing plutonium and long-range missiles. It is hard to conclude America would have succeeded in bringing about the release of the journalists had it made do with boycotts and threats.

The second lesson: Sometimes there is a need to find less routine solutions and to diverge from protocol. The Obama administration tried, and failed, to renew the rapprochement with North Korea by the usual methods. Instead of giving up, accusing the other side of intransigence and saying there is nobody to talk to, it was decided to send the former president to Pyongyang. Clinton has international standing and a rare ability to form personal ties with foreign nations and leaders. That was an effective means to breach the wall of isolation and alienation and to achieve immediate results and perhaps future ones as well.

Policy makers in Israel would do well to learn from Clinton’s journey to Pyongyang in advance of the unveiling of the Obama initiative for renewing the diplomatic process here.

Of course, not everyone thinks so, and two other op-eds today make the case that engagement is a red herring. One comes from former Israeli U.N. ambassador Dore Gold, who dismantles the argument for engaging Iran in the L.A. Times:

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about sticking to engagement. The main one is that it has already been tried — and utterly failed. Iran has consistently used the West’s willingness to engage as a delaying tactic, a smoke screen behind which Iran’s nuclear program has continued undeterred and, in many cases, undetected.

Back in 2005, Hassan Rowhani, the former chief nuclear negotiator of Iran during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, made a stunning confession in an internal briefing in Tehran, just as he was leaving his post. He explained that in the period during which he sat across from European negotiators discussing Iran’s uranium enrichment ambitions, Tehran quietly managed to complete the critical second stage of uranium fuel production: its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan. He boasted that the day Iran started its negotiations in 2003 "there was no such thing as the Isfahan project." Now, he said, it was complete.

Rowhani’s revelation showed clearly how Iran exploited the West’s engagement. Moreover, the Iranians violated their 2004 agreement with the EU and brilliantly dragged out further negotiations that followed. Equally important, they delayed Western punitive moves against them, keeping the U.N. Security Council at bay for years.

Mohammed Javad Larijani, a former deputy foreign minister and brother to Rowhani’s successor as chief negotiator, admitted the logic of diplomatic engagement from the Iranian side: "Diplomacy must be used to lessen pressure on Iran for its nuclear program."

The second comes Anne Bayefsky, who focuses on a target she loves: the Obama administration.

The president’s stance on Iran, and what it says about his anti-Israel bias, cannot be wished away. On August 3 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the eviction of two Palestinian families illegally living in Jerusalem homes "deeply regrettable," but politely asked Iran for help in locating "the whereabouts of the three missing Americans" – that Iran had taken hostage – "and return[ing] them as quickly as possible." This is an administration more worried about ensuring a Judenrein future Palestinian state (settlements being only the tip of the iceberg) than ensuring the safety of the Jewish state or preventing the dramatic shift in the balance of power that will come with an Iranian nuclear weapon.

With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sworn into office this week, it is critical that Obama’s Iran scheme be in the open. Here are the elements of the "begging us to talk with them" syndrome.

Engagement is the watchword, and it has no expiry date. In May, Obama declared that deadlines would be "artificial," and spoke only of having "a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction." In July the President said "we will take stock of Iran’s progress" at the G20 meeting in late September. On July 27, Gates told Jerusalem: "I think the president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of response this fall, perhaps by the time of the UN General Assembly." All of which is a recipe for delay.

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