On Iran & N Korea: A good deal can’t overcome bad judgment

As the Obama Administration works toward an agreed framework with Iran, a curious division is emerging among its defenders. On one hand, the administration and its supporters are understandably rejecting comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. The State Department insists that “[t]he comprehensive deal we are seeking to negotiate with Iran is fundamentally different than what we did in terms of our approach to North Korea,” and will require more intrusive inspections “because of the lessons we learned from the North Korea situation.”

These unfavorable comparisons, however, have bruised the ex-diplomats who still see the 1994 Agreed Framework as their magnum opus:

Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not. Without the 1994 deal, North Korea would have built the bomb sooner, stockpiled weapons more quickly and amassed a much larger arsenal by now. Intelligence estimates in the early 1990s concluded that the North’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. More than 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened. [Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]

Shortly after it signed AF1, the Clinton Administration found out that North Korea was cheating by building a secret uranium enrichment program. Because uranium programs are easier to hide than plutonium programs, overlooking this and giving Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid, diplomatic cover, and (unless they were also willing to walk away) de facto permission to go on cheating would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies. The uranium program may have been in its early stages then, but the more it progressed, the harder it would have been to force Kim Jong Il to dismantle it. George W. Bush was right to realize this, but he was too distracted by Iraq, too ill-advised by his diplomats, and too indecisive to respond to it coherently. Instead, he vacillated between tough talk, weak sanctions, a brief interlude of sanctions that worked, and inept diplomacy, culminating in AF2 in 2007. There are many good reasons to damn George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but the collapse of AF1 is the least of them.

More fundamentally, we’re speaking of North Korea, a state that broke an Armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, a 1999 missile moratorium, the 2007 agreed framework, the 2005 joint statement, the 2012 Leap Day deal, a slew of agreements governing the Kaesong Industrial Park, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What made AF1 different from the rest of these broken deals? How many times must a frog be stung to see the scorpion’s nature? Even so, 1994 was many broken agreements ago. That makes it slightly easier to argue that AF1 was worth trying than AF2 (although Joel Wit has the unique qualification of being associated with both of them). For Gallucci and Wit to concede AF1’s failure in retrospect would not necessarily draw harsh judgment from their peers, even if AF1’s legacy and Pyongyang’s record speak plainly for themselves. It would not necessarily establish that their experience with AF1 is less of a qualification than the opposite. But their refusal to concede its failure, even after all we’ve learned, does.

The collapse of the North Korea deal has been used to argue that it is impossible to conduct diplomacy with rogue states. But the only litmus test that matters is whether an agreement serves our national interest, is better than having no deal at all, and is preferable to military force. The arrangement with Iran appears to be well on its way to meeting that standard. [Gallucci & Wit]

And inevitably, we are offered the false choice of appeasement or war. But the real litmus test is whether other options might have saved a deal that wasn’t necessarily flawed on paper, or alternatively, given us a more trustworthy partner to negotiate with. Those options might have included tougher sanctions supported by (rather than subverted by) diplomacy, to cut the flow of Chinese and South Korean cash to Pyongyang, and more subversive engagement with North Korea’s disgruntled and dispossessed. 

As a result, the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions. This does not excuse the North’s behavior, but it does show these deals require constant attention. [Gallucci & Wit]

That is to say, Gallucci and Wit contend that North Korea has nuclear weapons, not because North Korea wanted nuclear weapons, but because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to grant Kim Jong Il’s regime more aid and full diplomatic relations as it cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework. Are there limits to the concessions Gallucci and Wit would have granted while Kim Jong Il went on with his uranium program? Are there limits to the amount of cheating or provocation that would have finally been too much for even them? Are there limits to how far they would they have let North Korea’s uranium program go before walking away from AF1? If so, it’s not evident from their op-ed. Nor is it encouraging that Gallucci and Wit already concede that “we should not be surprised if Tehran is caught cheating.” I wouldn’t be, but Gallucci and Wit would make a stronger case by revealing what they would do to get Iran back in line with its obligations, when they would walk away, and what their Plan B would be. If you go into any negotiation without knowing those answers, you aren’t really negotiating.

At least John Delury explains just how far he would have been willing to take this, which is helpful, because it helps us understand how far we should take his counsel.

The central lesson of the failed diplomacy with North Korea is that even the best nuclear deal with Iran is merely a prelude to the real diplomatic drama. To ensure that Tehran does not go the way of Pyongyang, the nuclear accord must be followed by the creation of a framework for fundamentally new Iranian relations with the United States, the region, and the international community. The United States’ nuclear deal with Korea wasn’t enough on its own—and its deal with Iran won’t be, either. [John Delury, Foreign Affairs]

Unlike Delury, the central lesson I draw is that even a nominally useful deal becomes useless when one party is pathologically mendacious, and the other party is emotionally and irredeemably predisposed to denial, and unwilling to hold the first party to the terms. Even the best deal is worse than useless when its benefits to the cheating party exacerbate the very problems it was intended to address. Yet Delury’s faith in Kim Jong Il’s intentions extends to preposterous proportions:

Had the United States made an all-out effort to sign a peace treaty and guarantee North Korean security, while also lifting sanctions and encouraging economic integration in the region, North Korea could have been another Asian communist success story, without needing nuclear weapons. But Clinton’s big push came too late, and then George W. Bush dealt this fragile process a death-blow by walking away from the table. [Delury]

Delury assumes that Pyongyang is interested in “fundamentally new relations” that would have American journalists and food aid workers crawling all over North Korea, speaking almost freely to starving villagers and factory workers, and taking selfies in front of missile bases and gulags. Myself, I’m much less sure that Pyongyang wants this. And then, there is the example of the Sunshine Policy, which also failed to change the scorpion’s nature, as Sue Terry and Max Boot point out:

In short, North Korea was cheating both before and after the signing of the Agreed Framework. It did so in spite of the copious benefits flowing to the country as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, through which, from 1998 to 2008, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pumped approximately $8 billion in economic assistance into North Korea in the hope of improving bilateral relations. Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Peace Prize for meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 2000—a summit, it was later divulged, that was made possible only through the payment of a $500 million cash bribe to Kim Jong Il. [Sue Terry and Max Boot, Foreign Affairs]

Delury breezily throws out that “six years of patient sanctions has not stopped Pyongyang from making dramatic progress in its uranium enrichment and missile programs,” and then proceeds straight to the false choice argument. One must catch him mid-sentence to note that he reveals no sign of having read the sanctions, but perhaps he’ll offer us his own legal analysis of what the sanctions are, what they are not.

Why was there no settlement? Simply put, domestic politics undermined prudent foreign policy. One month after Clinton signed the Agreed Framework, the success of the Republican Party in the 1994 U.S. midterm elections turned Congress into a fortress of obstruction. [Delury]

That is, the elected representatives of the American people were unwilling to establish full diplomatic relations with a state that was breaking its word and lying about it, and that inflicts this on its people and lies about that, too. The idea must have taken hold among the bourgeoisie in flyover country that it is immoral and unwise to trust and perpetuate a state founded on secrecy, mendacity, xenophobia (especially anti-Americanism), and an utter disregard for human life. Not even a frog has to be stung twice to understand the scorpion’s nature, yet to this day, Gallucci (and let’s remember, whatever his judgment, Gallucci is a man of integrity) is counseling us to cut yet another freeze deal with the North Koreans — a deal only he, Stephen Bosworth, and a few of the frogs in the adjacent wells believe the North Koreans have any serious interest in.

It takes a willful denial of reality to claim, as Gallucci, Wit, and Delury do, that the United States was at fault for the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean negotiations. A dispassionate reading of the evidence suggests that North Korea was never serious about giving up a nuclear program into which it had invested decades—not to mention billions of dollars—and that it saw as vital to regime protection and internal legitimacy. If North Korea has not developed as many nuclear weapons as U.S. intelligence agencies once feared, that is most likely a side effect of the regime’s dysfunction rather than any lack of desire to acquire more weapons. [Terry & Boot]

The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, writing at The National Interest, brings us back to the central flaw of the agreed frameworks with North Korea — that even a good agreement can’t survive when entrusted to men and women of subpar judgment. It’s an argument that Wit, Gallucci, Delury do much to validate:

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

Pyongyang serially deceived, denied, and defied the international community. Yet arms control proponents responded to growing evidence of North Korean cheating by doubting, dismissing, deflecting, denouncing, deliberating, debating, dawdling, delaying, demanding, and eventually dealing.

These “experts” initially rejected intelligence reports of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program, its uranium weapons program, complicity in a Syrian nuclear reactor, and steadily increasing nuclear and missile capabilities. [Bruce Klingner, The National Interest]

Wit, for example, questioned the scale and significance of intelligence estimates about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program just three years before Pyongyang revealed the existence of a “vast” program of perhaps thousands of centrifuges — a program that posed “both a horizontal and a vertical proliferation threat,” and was an “avenue for North Korea to increase the number and sophistication of its nuclear weapons.” Klingner also adds another important and related point:

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

The UN has shown a remarkable ability to emit a timid squeak of indignation when its resolutions are blatantly violated and then only after extensive negotiations and compromise. Hampered by Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the UN Security Council has been limited to lowest-common denominator responses. 

He might have taken this a step further: neither President Bush nor President Obama snapped back after North Korea broke AF2 or the Leap Day deal. Despite Obama’s campaign promise to reimpose sanctions if North Korea didn’t keep its word, two nuke tests later, he still hasn’t. Executive Order 13,570 largely reimposed the import restrictions Bill Clinton relaxed in 1999 in response to a short-lived missile moratorium (yes, North Korea broke that freeze deal, too). The total dry weight of the sanctions President Obama has imposed under Executive Orders 13382, 13551, and 13687 is still much less than what George W. Bush lifted with respect to North Korea’s money laundering through our financial system and its previous listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

What this really comes down to is whether you believe the better way to protect a diplomatic process is to excuse the parties from their obligations and throw tribute at cheaters, or to extract a heavy enough price for violations to give the other party some incentive to get back into compliance. I don’t claim to have a deep understanding of the Iran deal — in part because most of its terms are either undisclosed, disputed, or yet to be resolved — but any defense of it that also defends the agreed frameworks with North Korea does much to persuade me that an agreed framework with Iran would be equally doomed.

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Must read: Iranian bank handled arms transactions for Tehran, Pyongyang through Seoul branch

Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, who covered the Tienanmen Massacre and exposed the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, has written an extensive report about the operations of Iran’s Bank Mellat in Seoul during the administrations of Roh Moo-Hyun and Lee Myung-Bak:

In a cable dated March 20, State asked its embassy in Seoul to tell the South Korean government that “Bank Mellat has facilitated the movement of millions of dollars for Iran’s nuclear program since at least 2003.”

Four days later, State followed up with a cable asking its embassy to “Inform Seoul that the U.S. views Bank Mellat’s Seoul branch as a key node for facilitation of proliferation-related activities.” That same cable included a list of U.S. allegations regarding specific transactions of Bank Mellat in Seoul. For example, State alleged that in 2007 Bank Mellat in Seoul had served as an intermediary for a Hong Kong company that was “almost certainly a front company for Tanchon Bank (North Korea’s primary weapons trade bank)” and that Bank Mellat in Seoul had played a role in financial transactions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program, purchase of a surface-to-air missile system, and illicit nuclear procurement networks in China.

Tanchon is a front for KOMID, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, a notorious proliferator for North Korea. Treasury designated  KOMID under Executive Order 13,382 in 2005, and the U.N. designated it in 2009. Treasury designated Tanchon Bank under the same Executive Order in 2009.

E.O. 13,382 is an authority that allows the blocking of the dollar-denominated assets of entities involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

South Korean officials thanked the U.S. for this demarche, and reaffirmed their commitment to investigating Bank Mellat’s branch in Seoul.

A few months later, in June, 2008, U.S. authorities, in turn, thanked Seoul, and urged them, consistent with U.N. sanctions on Iran, to “establish reporting and/or licensing requirements for all transactions executed by Bank Mellat Seoul.” The U.S. also suggested that South Korea, “once its investigation is complete, explore options for closing Bank Mellat Seoul.”

So while 28,500 Americans were in South Korea, defending it from North Korea’s growing WMD threat, South Korea let an Iranian bank front for a North Korean proliferator … admittedly one that Treasury itself has not yet designated.

Still, you’d think that Seoul would be especially sensitive to violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which prohibited North Korea’s missile programs, and sales or purchases of major weapons systems. Those resolutions were largely U.S. initiatives to protect South Korea’s security, meaning that South Korea ate our sugar from one end and shat it right out the other. I’ll just let that be your kachi kapshida image for that day. (Update: No, I won’t. Not this day. See the next post.)

Two more years went by, during which the U.S. continued to prod South Korea to take action. In June, 2010 the U.N. Security Council passed its fourth sanctions resolution on Iran. This resolution included, in an annex, the statement that “Over the last seven years, Bank Mellat has facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions for Iranian nuclear, missile and defense entities.”

… and by this time, the U.N. Security Council had also passed UNSCR 1874, further tightening the restrictions on North Korea’s arms trade.

Even then, it took three more months, and a visit from the State Department’s then-serving special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, Robert Einhorn, before South Korea in Sept. 2010 worked around to blacklisting Bank Mellat’s branch in Seoul. [Claudia Rosett, Forbes]

Although Rosett makes a strong case that South Korean regulators turned a blind eye to Treasury’s pleas for years, Treasury itself was slow to act against Bank Mellat. Bank Mellat is not listed as a Primary Money Laundering Concern by Treasury, and Treasury did not designate Bank Mellat under Executive Order 13,382 until 2011. To an extent, I can understand the South Koreans’ slow reaction: why should they take action against Bank Mellat when not even Treasury itself had done so? You would think that South Korea’s own security interest in the success of the global nonproliferation system would answer that question, but that sort of logic does not match the prevailing point of view in South Korea then or now.

In any event, the chronology you see illustrated here is a combination of financial diplomacy and enforcement that this administration would take against a target in which it shows genuine interest. That’s exactly what you won’t see with respect to North Korea.

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Three Pinocchios for Glenn Kessler’s “fact-check” on North Korea

If only for prudential reasons, 47 Republican Senators should not have written to Iran’s Supreme Leader. We only have one President at a time, and only the President should negotiate with foreign leaders. Parallel, shadow-government negotiations with foreign adversaries are wrong when Republican Senators do it; they were just as wrong when Jim Wright met with Daniel Ortega, when Nancy Pelosi met with with Bashar Assad over a Republican President’s objections, and when a young John Kerry met with Madam Nguyen Thi Binh, the Viet Cong representative to the Paris Peace talks. A country that cannot speak with one voice cannot speak coherently.

I do not exhibit this fossil record to question the Democrats’ objections, but because both parties need reminding to adhere to this principle, regardless of which party occupies the White House or controls Congress, and no matter how ardently the opposition may disagree with the President. Congress, of course, has the right and duty to legislate against bad deals, and to communicate its objections to the President and the people. Had the same objections come from Majority Leader McConnell or Chairman Corker to Secretary Kerry or President Obama, they would have been appropriate.

Substantively, the Republicans have good reason to worry about the President’s deal with Iran. Its main weakness is Iran’s mendacity. Iran has been caught with undeclared nuclear facilities and repeatedly lied (see page 14) to the IAEA, yet the deal would rely on NPT safeguards agreements that will only work if Iran is forthcoming. The alternative to a bad deal is not war. It would be some difficult diplomacy with our allies, and more sanctions, until Iran is ready for a deal that secures our interests, and those of our many allies within range of an Iranian bomb.

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Not surprisingly, the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea arises as an analogy to the negotiations with Iran. Also not surprisingly, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler speaks up to defend the Agreed Framework and “fact-check” Senator Cotton’s criticism of it.

Obviously, Kessler has strong opinions about this subject. He covered North Korea during most of the Bush Administration, and his coverage leaned strongly toward the 1994 agreement’s most outspoken defenders, and against the Bush Administration for allegedly abandoning it. This 2006 story, for example, was a thinly veiled opinion piece defending the 1994 deal. Worse, Kessler treated North Korea itself like a sideshow to Foggy Bottom, mostly ignoring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and thereby missing one of the decade’s most important human rights stories. Even when viewed through Kessler’s narrow aperture, North Korea’s lying and cheating about food aid and prison camps mirrored its approach to nuclear negotiations.

Kessler characterizes North Korea’s nuclear program as “nascent” in 1994, but by then, that program included a functioning reactor and reprocessing plant. You can see archived satellite imagery here. They don’t look “nascent” to me.





What these images show is a large investment in the acquisition of nuclear weapons — a point Kessler concedes — even as between 600,000 and 2.5 million North Koreans starved to death.

As subsequent events would show with increasing clarity, North Korea was also pursuing a second, parallel path to a bomb by enriching uranium, in clear violation of the 1994 agreement. The gravity of this threat lies in the relative ease of concealing a uranium enrichment program, compared to a plutonium program like that shown above. A nuclear agreement that gave Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid and diplomatic cover, but that failed to curtail his uranium program, would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies.

The extent of the uranium program became a matter of intense controversy by the late 1990s. By then, not even the Clinton Administration could certify Pyongyang’s compliance with the 1994 agreement. In a 1999 policy review, Clinton’s Defense Secretary, William Perry (assisted by current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter) also conceded the evidence of North Korea’s “possible continuing nuclear weapons-related work.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missiles continued, almost without interruption.

The uranium controversy intensified during Bush’s presidency. The 1994 deal finally collapsed in 2002, when North Korean diplomats admitted the program’s existence to visiting U.S. diplomats. In response, the Bush Administration stopped shipments of fuel oil to North Korea, and the North Koreans kicked out IAEA inspectors and restarted the Yongbyon reactor. Because of Washington tribalism and North Korean exceptionalism — the tendency of some observers to excuse North Korea from the rules by which the rest of humanity lives by, or pretends to — many left-of-center scholars, diplomats, and reporters blamed the breakdown on Bush. Yet even as the evidence of North Korea’s uranium program mounted, Kessler questioned its existence.

The uranium controversy mostly ended in 2010, when North Korea dressed a visiting American nuclear scientist in a red velvet smoking jacket, handed him a Cohiba and a glass of Hennessy, and showed him through what former diplomat Christopher Hill once mocked as “a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium.” Inside that room was a cascade of perhaps thousands of centrifuges, most likely based on designs from the A.Q. Khan network that Pyongyang worked on both before and after the 1994 agreement. That room and its contents were years in the making.

uranium girl

Even now, Kessler questions the veracity of North Korea’s 2002 admission, saying, “Questions have since been raised about whether the Bush administration misinterpreted North Korea’s supposed confirmation.” Pyongyang’s admission was a particularly damning one for the Agreed Framework’s defenders, but if the facts leave little room for doubt about it, Kessler should not have left it unresolved:

One of the specialists who visited North Korea last week, former State Department official Charles L. Pritchard, was part of the U.S. delegation that reported hearing the North Korean admission. U.S. officials said they had three translators at the 2002 session and have no doubt the North Koreans confirmed the program.

One official present at the 2002 meeting said Pritchard and Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly began passing notes as Kang Suk Ju, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, “looking flushed and defiant,” began a 50-minute monologue reacting to the U.S. declaration that it knew North Korea had an enrichment program. As the translation progressed, Pritchard and Kelly each passed notes, asking, “Is he saying what we think he’s saying?” A half minute later, they passed notes again, in effect saying, “Never mind — it’s clear.” [Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2004, archived here]

Tong Kim, one of the translators who was present for the discussion, later published his own confirmation of what Kang Suk Ju said (archived here). The Washington Post’s story interests me the most, however. Given its date, it’s likely that Kessler himself wrote it. Unfortunately, it has fallen so far down the memory hole that not even The Internet Archive can retrieve it. For Kessler to question this admission is particularly disingenuous in light of what his own paper reported.

In 2007, Kessler wrote a book, “The Confidante,” which painted a flattering portrait of George W. Bush’s own sequel to the 1994 Agreed Framework (review here, first chapter here). Bush’s diplomats repeatedly deceived Congress to forestall opposition to their eleventh-hour deal with Pyongyang, but their agreed framework would turn out as badly as Clinton’s, and for the same reason. Shortly after the 2007 deal was signed, North Korea was caught red-handed building a nuclear reactor in Syria. (Kessler did not see this as a vindication for skeptics of North Korea’s trustworthiness, but as “an awkward moment for the Bush administration.”) Throughout 2008, North Korea lied about its uranium program, balked at inspections, and eventually withdrew from the deal shortly before Bush left office. Even in 2007, the outcome seemed predictable, and was.

Kessler writes that by 2009, talks with North Korea were “considered such a loser that the Obama administration has barely bothered to restart” them. He omits that Pyongyang greeted President Obama with a missile test and a nuclear test within six months of his inauguration. He also omits that the Obama Administration has engaged in years of onandoff back-channel talks with Pyongyang, talks that may continue right up to this year. Those talks reached their pinnacle with the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement,” a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and which Pyongyang reneged on within weeks of signing it. If President Obama kept the profile of his talks with Pyongyang low, it may be because Pyongyang was so justly infamous for its mendacity that he felt some understandable insecurity about “buying the same horse twice,” as his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, described it.

Who can name a single agreement with the United States, starting with and including the 1953 Armistice, that North Korea has kept? Kessler indulges much counterfactual speculation about how a Gore Administration would have handled the HEU question, but there’s little reason to believe that anything short of much tougher sanctions or regime collapse would have prevented Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, or the two subsequent tests it carried out during the Obama Administration. At a convenient moment, Pyongyang can always find an excuse to violate its agreements. Several such excuses arise each year.

Between 1994 and 2002, Kim Jong Il may well have concluded that the Agreed Framework was a small price to pay for the aid it raked in. After all, it would be years until Pyongyang could miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon to South Korea or Japan. By some accounts, it finally developed that capability during Barack Obama’s second term.

Where Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all deserve blame is their shared failure to draft and implement a Plan B for Pyongyang’s inevitable cheating. That oversight deprived our diplomats of the leverage they needed to succeed, and may have encouraged Kim Jong Il to renege.

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Interestingly, Kessler does not assign any Pinocchios to Cotton’s statement. Had Kessler only omitted the whole truth about Kang Suk Ju’s admission, I’d have afforded him some deference on an issue that has long been controversial, and where the whole truth still has not come to light.

The most important sentence in Kessler’s article, however, is this one: “North Korea got the bomb because the agreement collapsed.” It’s a conclusion that ignores years of evidence that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — through both uranium and plutonium — was calculated, deliberate, and only partially delayed by the diplomacy Kessler now defends with a selective recitation of the facts.

Make no mistake: North Korea got the bomb because Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wanted the bomb. They were willing to expend any amount of money, lives, and lies necessary to achieve that goal. Although the 1994 Agreed Framework may have delayed North Korea’s progress toward a plutonium bomb for a few years, ignoring its uranium program would have irresponsibly ignored the greater long-term threat. North Korea did not get the bomb because George W. Bush finally acknowledged that the 1994 deal had been falling apart for years. North Korea got the bomb because it wanted the bomb, and no American President was willing to do what it would take to interrupt that pursuit.

I don’t believe that Kessler wrote his article with intent to deceive, but it contains significant factual errors, selective omissions, and contradictions. More than anything, it’s a tendentious presentation of dubious and debatable opinion as fact. By my reading of Kessler’s own standards, that qualifies for three Pinocchios.

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How the Iran deal affects North Korea policy

You would think that the world’s biggest government would be capable of handling more than one global proliferation crisis at a time. Unfortunately, Washington isn’t wired for that kind of bandwidth. Major policy initiatives require political capital, and it will take all of this administration’s dwindling reserves to fend off a new round of Iran sanctions in Congress.* The administration couldn’t defend a deal with North Korea now if it had one, and that goes double for the sort of non-disarmament deal being pushed by the likes of Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth.

Regardless of your subjective views, the Obama Administration’s political position has eroded significantly in the last month. Its approval ratings on foreign policy are almost as low as they are on Obamacare. I suspect that the administration’s approval rating on foreign policy will get a short-term bump — reporters are using words like “historic” and “euphoria,” word choices that have proven to be poor predictors of longer-term success. Opposition to the deal, however, is already significant. Even key Democrats like Bob Menendez and Charles Schumer reason that the deal fails to freeze Iran’s enrichment or do enough to stop its progress toward the Bomb to merit billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and the lost leverage that entails. It can’t help that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is saying this:

Let anyone make his own reading, but this right is clearly stated in the text of the agreement that Iran can continue its enrichment, and I announce to our people that our enrichment activities will continue as before.

Unlike Agreed Framework II in 2007, this deal will exacerbate, rather than mollify, opposition to the President when the President is weakened politically. Agreed Framework II was the Bush Administration’s way of deferring a North Korea debate when it was weakened by Iraq. The Iran deal will intensify the Iran debate when it is weakened by Obamacare. All bets are off, of course, if the Democrats lose the Senate next year, but in the meantime, Democratic senators in swing states will face tough pre-election votes and won’t want to be portrayed as soft on regimes that most Americans loathe. It seems unlikely that the administration would expend more of its capital on appeasing North Korea at a time like this.

Iran could also shape the North Korea debate in other ways, but first, you need to understand the difference between Iran sanctions and North Korea sanctions. Every time North Korea provokes, bands of “experts” emerge to say that our North Korea sanctions are already maxed out (so what can we really do except try to appease them?). What all of these experts have in common is that none of them know what they’re talking about. They’re repeating a consensus formed in an echo chamber — a consensus with little basis in the relevant executive orders (123), statutes, or regulations. In fact, North Korea sanctions are relatively weak — far weaker than the ones that forced Iran to bargain with us.

What made Iran sanctions so devastating wasn’t just their targeted attack on Iran’s regime-linked banks, its oil sector, and the shipping lines that carry Iranian oil to markets in Europe and Asia. It was the fact that they also targeted third parties — Iran’s oil customers, and those who maintain correspondent relationships with its banks. There is nothing comparable to this in the North Korea sanctions regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. By all means, go to Title 31 of the Code of Federal Regulations and do what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing — compare the various sanctions regulations for yourself. We have travel sanctions against Cuba, but not against North Korea, which is holding two U.S. citizens captive, and which abducted and murdered a lawful permanent resident in 2000. We have human rights sanctions against those who stifle free expression in Iran and Belarus (but not North Korea). We sanction those who commit crimes against humanity in Sudan (but not North Korea). We specifically target the oil sectors of Iran and Sudan, but not North Korea’s mineral sector, which has long been associated with its proliferation programs. To get a contract with the U.S. government, you have to certify that you don’t do business with the government of Sudan (but not North Korea). The Burma JADE Act allows Treasury to ban correspondent relationships with Burmese banks (no such authority applies to North Korea). Iran and Burma are listed as primary money laundering concerns, restricting their access to the global financial system. North Korea, the world’s most notorious counterfeiting and money launderer, is not.

Instead, our North Korea sanctions target only a narrow list of individuals, trading companies, and banks that have been specifically linked to WMD proliferation. Although Treasury recently blocked two additional North Korean banks from the financial system, the third-country banks that facilitate North Korea’s illicit and prohibited commerce haven’t been targeted since 2007. We have import and export sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Import sanctions were not applied to North Korea until 2011, and you can still export to North Korea, provided you aren’t shipping any sensitive technology and obtain the requisite license (you might also want to get your money up front). The tough third-party sanctions that disconnected Iran and Burma from the financial system and stranded its assets overseas aren’t in force against North Korea. Overall, our North Korea sanctions are more comparable to those we have against Belarus and Zimbabwe than to those we have against Iran, or even Cuba.

Understanding that difference unlocks some obvious comparisons.

First, it’s no longer possible to make a serious argument that well-crafted sanctions don’t work. By “well-crafted,” I mean the kind of sanction that isolates key sectors of the target’s economy from global trade and finance, not simple bilateral trade sanctions, which are just a beginning.

Second, if the administration’s position is that more Iran sanctions should be deferred because Iran is negotiating in good faith, what basis does the administration have to argue that North Korea sanctions should also be deferred? Last Thursday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the U.S. won’t resume dialogue with North Korea “as long as it keeps key parts of its nuclear weapons program running.” The next day, Special Envoy Glyn Davies said that “North Korea must ‘cease’ all its nuclear activities, both plutonium and uranium, before a resumption” of the six-party talks. Now, the Park Administration is saying that the North must re-commit to denuclearization and agree to “detailed action plans” before new talks. So it’s settled, then — North Korea clings to its nukes, we have nothing to talk about, and by the way, the clock is ticking. South Korea’s Defense Minister is now saying that North Korea now has the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Third, if sanctions at least gave Iran an incentive to negotiate — an incentive that it had lacked for years — then couldn’t they create a similar incentive for Kim Jong Un? North Korea’s economy has a fraction of Iran’s GDP, is far less diverse, and is far more dependent on foreign currency and imports to fund its priorities. We already know that financial pressure forced Kim Jong Il to negotiate in 2006.

Fourth, if the administration is only opposed to Iran sanctions because they could hurt the prospect for a diplomatic solution with Iran, but there is no immediate prospect for talks with North Korea, doesn’t the administration’s argument on Iran look disingenuous if it opposes sanctions on North Korea? Wouldn’t opposition to North Korea sanctions by the administration allow its critics to argue that the administration is reflexively opposed to sanctions because it’s simply weak?

The consensus today is that tough sanctions forced Iran back to the bargaining table after years of stalling, lying, and obfuscation, yet our North Korea sanctions are a pale shadow of the sanctions we have against Iran. Whether you believe that the purpose of sanctions on Iran was to slow its nuclear progress, open the way to diplomacy, or weaken the regime domestically, you can argue that sanctions were moving us in all of those directions. Why we aren’t using sanctions to move us toward the same goals with North Korea?


* With apologies for mixing my metaphors.

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Sanctions are working in Iran. They’ll work better against North Korea, and here’s why.

Drag a modest grant check through DuPont Circle and you’ll accumulate at least ten pundits, several dozen grad students, and a multitude of assorted kooks who would willingly write you an academic paper entitled, “Why Sanctions Never Worked.” And that’s true, except for South Africa, Yugoslavia, Burma, Nauru, Al Qaeda, Iran, and North Korea, and only if you limit the argument to trade sanctions and exclude other tools of economic pressure, like coordinated divestment, third-party financial sanctions like those in Section 311 of the Patriot Act, or targeted money-blocking sanctions like those in executive orders 13,382 and 13,551.

The notable counter-example is Iraq, which was willing to let its people and infrastructure suffer while it survived on oil smuggled through Turkey. But the sanctions against Iraq were old-fashioned trade sanctions, and it’s not hard to understand why they failed.

Because trade is mainly decentralized, it is difficult to regulate and control. The finance on which trade depends, however, is centralized–around the U.S. dollar, U.S. financial institutions, and the financial district of New York City–the Treasury Department’s power to restrict the access of bad actors to the global financial system by regulating U.S. financial institutions has emerged as a key tool of global U.S. power. That’s especially true in an age of weariness about the use of military force. Washington is only coming to terms with the potential power of these new legal and financial tools.

Sanctions also require unity of effort. They can only work as part of a comprehensive strategy that may include military deterrence, carefully monitored humanitarian assistance, law enforcement, financial regulation, industry liaison, information operations in the targeted country, and tough-minded diplomacy with the targeted country, domestic opposition, and third countries. They don’t work if they’re at odds with these other tools of national policy. The State Department’s failed 2007 deal with North Korea, which threw away the very leverage that made that deal possible, is an ideal example of this.

At almost every meeting aimed at getting the North Koreans to halt their nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has demanded that the United States lift its penalties against Banco Delta Asia. This week the Russian government asked the United States to remove the sanctions against the bank, too. [New York Times, Jan. 18, 2007]

Now we know it worked against North Korea, but not long ago, we were told it wouldn’t work against Iran. This 2007 New York Times report quotes a skeptical eurocrat, who explains why the financial sanctions that devastated North Korea’s palace economy and exceeded even Treasury’s expectations would never work against Iran:

The United States has tried to apply similar pressure on Iran in recent years without as much success. The size of Iranian oil exports and the country’s deeper integration into the international financial system make it much more difficult to isolate.

“It is not so easy with Iran, but it has shown great effect on North Korea,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday.

That an EU official would hold this view shouldn’t have been surprising. Europe has long resisted the use of financial pressure against rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism. Some of its influential banks and businesses enjoy cozy relationships with them. But there was a sound basis for the skepticism in the case of Iran, which unlike North Korea, has a diverse economy. It sells oil, of course, but also automobiles, carpets, fruit, pistachios, carpets, and other things that people want to buy. Diverse economies are harder to isolate than those whose links to the global financial system are fragile.

Harder, but not that hard, as we learn from a Times report this week:

In repeated meetings during the week, Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the government’s financial condition was far more dire than the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had let on.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif did not publicly specify the severity of the cash squeeze. But Western economists believe the crisis point may be much closer than previously thought, perhaps a matter of months. Iran news outlets have reported that the government owes billions of dollars to private contractors, banks and municipalities. [N.Y. Times]

What happens in a few months? The businesses and government agencies that have lost their export markets, and that have no domestic customers left, that have been running at losses for months, and that employ most of Iran’s workers will run out of credit and savings. They will have to lay off their workers. Iran’s streets will be full of the unemployed. Most of those people, if asked, would probably say that they want Iran to have nuclear weapons. By a stronger margin, however, they will say they would rather have jobs. When their voices are heard in Iran’s streets and when the regime knows it can’t pay the forces it will need to crush them, diplomacy with Iran will have a chance to work.

It won’t work quite this way in a society as terrorized, physically stunted, and psychologically scarred as North Korea’s. But eventually, the men with guns won’t be able to make up their margin of survival by preying on peasants. They will have to prey on each other.

For a more fulsome explanation of why we can isolate North Korea financial without the cooperation of (and even despite the active resistance of) China’s government, I’ll turn to this Times review of Juan Zarate’s book, Treasury’s War (which I downloaded today):

The genius of Section 311 is that Treasury doesn’t do anything other than apply a financial “scarlet letter.” The actual damage is done by the bank’s peers, which typically refuse to do business with it out of fear that they, too, will be cut off from the financial system. Just the threat of a 311, Mr. Zarate writes, has caused nations as powerful as Russia, and as recalcitrant as Myanmar, to change their money-laundering laws, forcing their banks to conform to international standards. A handful of well-placed 311’s, he says, has put much newfound pressure on governments including North Korea and Iran.

“Geopolitics is now a game best played with financial and commercial weapons,” Mr. Zarate writes. “The new geoeconomic game may be more efficient and subtle than past geopolitical competitions, but it is no less ruthless and destructive.”

The centerpiece of the book, and probably the best example of Section 311’s uses and limitations, is the story of Treasury’s assault, beginning in 2005, on North Korea, which American officials said was involved in activities like counterfeiting and drug trafficking. Mr. Zarate describes how the United States hit one of the banks it linked to North Korea, Banco Delta Asia in Macau, with a 311.

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” He adds: “The North Koreans didn’t know what hit them.”

As the depth of its plight sank in, North Korea appeared to panic. First, it fired off a missile into the Pacific, a move that had the additional benefit of freaking out the State Department, which demanded to know what Treasury was up to. Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.”

Eventually, however, Treasury’s pressure on Pyongyang had to be lifted at the insistence of the State Department, which was far more worried about North Korea’s missiles than its bank accounts. Mr. Zarate deplores the move. “The North Koreans had expertly turned the tables” on the United States, he says. “We were outmaneuvered at the height of international pressure and gave up our leverage.” [New York Times]

If you can’t get enough of this sort of thing, here’s a Q&A with Zarate in the Wall Street Journal, and here’s a must-see video of him explaining how these new tools of financial pressure pressure work:

Stop me if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a bill in Congress now that would utilize this very strategy framework to isolate North Korea from its billions in offshore deposits and its sources of regime-sustaining hard currency until it disarms, and makes significant progress on human rights, shuts down its death camps, and allows the open and fair distribution of food aid. And also, allows us to verify these things for ourselves.

We fret constantly about North Korea. We fret that it has restarted the Yongbyon reactor, and that its centrifuges are spinning away, enriching uranium. We fret that it sells nuclear reactors and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and that it might be testing nukes for both itself and Iran. We fret that it starves its people while it blows hundreds of millions of dollars on ski lift equipment, water parks, and yachts. We fret that its new mobile missiles will be able to deliver WMDs, including miniaturized nuclear weapons, and that we won’t be able to find them all in time. We fret that it may have liquidated several thousand people from one of its its prison camps. All this fretting is the constant companion of futility–the implication that there isn’t a thing we can do about any of it.

Except that we can. We could saw the trunk out from under Kim Jong Un’s money tree overnight. A determined campaign of financial pressure would destroy the regime in one or two years. And long before that, Kim Jong Un would come to us and ask for a deal. Only this time, that pressure should only be suspended as long as the progress continues.

H.R. 1771 is the bill that would do this. It has 125 bi-partisan co-sponsors. Some of them are as conservative as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King. Others are as liberal as Jim Moran, Joseph Kennedy, and Carol Shea-Porter. You could even call it a rare example of bi-partisan agreement within a Congress that’s often bitterly (and often, unnecessarily) divided. Is your representative on that list? Is your Senator willing to introduce companion legislation?

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Is North Korea importing oil from Iran?

Remember when Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard wrote that North Korea, notwithstanding the deepening misery of most of its people, had begun to show a current account surplus in recent years? Their conclusion was based largely on trade data showing that North Korea was importing more foreign goods, mostly through China.  If you believe these official Chinese government statistics for the last six months, however, Pyongyang’s imports from China fell sharply … for the first time in four years.

Is this welcome evidence that sanctions are starting to work? Not so fast. The main thing the North Koreans seem to be buying less of from China is oil.  Noland expressed his skepticism about a similar previous report of falling oil imports from China, suggesting that the drop might have been because of seasonal factors.

Another possible explanation, however, may be the announcement, in April, that Iran and North Korea had reached an oil-for-minerals barter deal.  The deal makes sense for Iran, which is having difficulty finding markets for its oil because of tightening international sanctions, and for North Korea, which had been paying above-market prices for Chinese oil.

The transactions would undermine international sanctions against Iran, and might (depending on the specific financial arrangements) also undermine sanctions against North Korea.  The use of barter, which doesn’t rely on the international financial system, lends itself well to sanctions evasion.

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Did Iran test a nuke in North Korea?

It would be a very serious matter if Iran had tested a nuclear weapon in North Korea in 2010, as this German language report in Die Welt claims. The claim has received much less attention in the U.S. press than it would seem to merit, and most bloggers who have picked up the story have merely wondered aloud whether it could be true (the notable exception being Stephan Haggard). I’ll add my summation of the evidence to Stephan’s, but I’ll also leverage the OFK archives to add some additional circumstantial evidence suggesting that the claim, though not proven, is plausible.

The best translation/summary of the claim is at the Jerusalem Post, of all places, and it tells us a bit more about the source of this allegation, a man named Hans Ruhle, “who directed the planning department of the German Defense Ministry from 1982 to 1988,” and who it claims is “widely respected among defense and security officials in Germany.” Drilling down further, the article claims that “some” or “many” intelligence agencies incline to the view that Iran has tested a nuke in North Korea, although the article tells us nothing about which agencies arrived at that view, or what the evidentiary basis for that view is. European intelligence agencies seldom have the reach that ours do, so they often get their intelligence second-hand, from the CIA. In this case, however, the conclusion may be based on open sources. This particular claim appears to originate, at least in part, from Swedish Nuclear Physicist Lars-Erik de Geer, who spent a year studying data from a private network of radioisotope-monitoring stations before publishing his conclusions in the British scientific journal Nature.

Remember that weird story back in May of 2010, when the North Koreans claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion? Most observers ridiculed the story, but that network of monitoring stations picked up some anomalies that lent the claim some corroboration:

The news was largely ridiculed in the South Korean and Western media — but it was not so quickly dismissed by the small circle of experts who devote their careers to identifying covert nuclear tests. South Korean scientists had detected a whiff of radioactive xenon at around that time, hinting at nuclear activity in its northern neighbour, which had already tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

In August 2010, experts meeting in Vienna informally discussed the South Korean data and measurements from an international network of radioisotope-monitoring stations operated by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which supports an as-yet-unratified treaty that seeks to ban nuclear-weapons testing. Among those experts was Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric scientist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm. When they looked at the monitoring data from Russian and Japanese stations close to North Korea, “the conclusion from everyone was, ‘Hell, we cannot explain them.'”, De Geer recalls.

Unwilling to let the matter rest, De Geer took the radioisotope data and compared them with the South Korean reports, as well as meteorological records. After a year of work, he has concluded that North Korea carried out two small nuclear tests in April and May 2010 that caused explosions in the range of 50″“200 tonnes of TNT equivalent. The types and ratios of isotopes detected, he says, suggest that North Korea was testing materials and techniques intended to boost the yield of its weapons. His paper will appear in the April/May issue of the journal Science and Global Security. [Nature, ht Israel Matsav]

Significantly, De Geer claimed that this was indicative of a test of a small uranium device, “in the range of 50-200 tons of TNT.” You may have heard those stories about North Korea having a uranium enrichment program, but as everyone now knows, Dick Cheney and John Bolton made it all up.

Having gotten that out of my system, I’ll add that a test of this size probably wouldn’t register as much more than background noise on a seismograph (small earthquakes are very common). By comparison, North Korea’s 2009 test measured a modest 4.7 on the Richter scale after a yield estimated between 2 and 8 kilotons. Its 2006 test registered 4.2, at a yield of just under a kiloton.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first published report of Iran testing a nuke in North Korea. Back in 2007, the London Daily Telegraph reported this:

North Korea is helping Iran to prepare an underground nuclear test similar to the one Pyongyang carried out last year. Under the terms of a new understanding between the two countries, the North Koreans have agreed to share all the data and information they received from their successful test last October with Teheran’s nuclear scientists. [….]

A senior European defence official told The Daily Telegraph that North Korea had invited a team of Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of last October’s underground test to assist Teheran’s preparations to conduct its own — possibly by the end of this year.

There were unconfirmed reports at the time of the Korean firing that an Iranian team was present. Iranian military advisers regularly visit North Korea to participate in missile tests. Now the long-standing military co-operation between the countries has been extended to nuclear issues. As a result, senior western military officials are deeply concerned that the North Koreans’ technical superiority will allow the Iranians to accelerate development of their own nuclear weapon.

“The Iranians are working closely with the North Koreans to study the results of last year’s North Korean nuclear bomb test,” said the European defence official. [The Telegraph]

There have been long-standing suspicions of nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea, and there is conclusive evidence of nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran’s ally Syria, possibly enabled with Iranian funding.

Would North Korea cross the line to joint nuclear testing with other countries? Some in our intelligence community have long believed that North Korea conducted its first nuclear test way back in 1998. In Pakistan.

North Korea’s proliferation relationship with Iran is broad and deep. There have been reports of North Korean technicians working in Iran, and vice versa. Most of the cooperation that’s been described in open sources relates to the countries’ missile programs, but according to multiple published reports, Iran and North Korea have a long cooperative relationship in the development of chemical weapons, including a mysterious explosion in Syria in 2004, reported cooperation in putting chemical warheads on missiles, and North Korea shipping chemical protective suits to Iran’s closest ally, Syria.

Most of this evidence is circumstantial. It doesn’t confirm the latest report, but it certainly makes it plausible. And given the reason why we can’t confirm any of this, I tend not to assign North Korea and Iran the benefit of the doubt.

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What Sanctions Can, and Can’t Do

While President Obama expresses frustration at China’s refusal to support sanctions against North Korea for sinking the ROKS Cheonan, U.S. officials are also expressing their concerns that China will also undermine sanctions against Iran. For what it’s worth, I’m much less bullish about Iran sanctions than I am about sanctions against North Korea. The potential effect of sanctions is inversely proportional to a regime’s connections to the outside world and its possession of goods that have an export market. As an instrument for forcing behavior modification, they take years to work at best. When properly targeted, they can slow the rate at which a state proliferates, sponsors, or engages in other objectionable behavior.

Applied more broadly, they can gradually sap a state’s economic strength and domestic political support, though this may take years to manifest itself in undemocratic states. When I lived in the quasi-democratic oligarchy of South Africa in 1990, what I saw was a largely functioning economy with a great deal of ambivalence about international sanctions. Some liberal whites certainly agreed with the moral justice of their motivation, but most resented the sanctions and those who supported them.

We can expect the North Korean regime to stubbornly resist any changes to its behavior, too, and it doesn’t have an organized domestic opposition to fear yet. That said, its “palace economy” is still uniquely vulnerable to financial sanctions because of its self-imposed isolation and its broken domestic economy. If the objective of sanctions on North Korea is behavior modification, they will fail to achieve this objective. If the objective is to destroy the regime’s capacity to maintain control, they can, but only if applied with full force and considerable patience, and only if Chinese banks and companies know they’re not off limits, either.

Iran, by contrast, may not have an efficient economy, but it has a functioning economy, one with strong economic links to plenty of other states and corporations that would happily go on trading with Iran despite U.N. sanctions. Iran, unlike North Korea, has things that the global economy wants, chiefly oil. For Iran, the discouraging history of U.N. sanctions against Iraq may be the better analogy. But that being said, Iran also has a strong (if latent) domestic opposition. And if sanctions harm Iran’s economy enough, and if the opposition can link the lifting of sanctions to greater prosperity, sanctions may eventually cause more fence-sitters to actively oppose the government.

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The Indictments Are Coming! The Indictments Are Coming!

il-76-at-don-muang.jpgWhy do I blog? Because of stories like this:

U.S. authorities plan to indict a New Zealand company allegedly involved in selling North Korean arms to Iran, sources linked to the investigation say. They are trying to track down shadowy figures using a labyrinth of thousands of Auckland companies registered to an office on Queen Street, Auckland’s main street. [Sydney Morning Herald]

The significance of indicting the company is that the feds will probably tack on some criminal forfeiture counts, which means that some of Iran’s money will end up taking a tiny dent in our hopelessly colossal sea of debt instead of putting kobe beef on Kim Jong Il’s table. Oh goody. Consulting Plan B, I see the Justice Department has selected Option Number 2. Expect the indictment to allege violations of 18 U.S.C. sec. 1956 and/or 1957, our supple-yet-graceful money laundering statutes, with their nubile extraterritorial jurisdiction, and their warm, yielding criminal forfeiture provisions.

International organisations fear New Zealand’s casual company registration system makes laundering money and financing terrorism easy. Most of the companies in question were set up by the Vanuatu-based GT Group, controlled by the New Zealand accountant Geoffrey Taylor and sons, Ian and Michael. None have obvious purpose, and none of their directors can be traced. It is not suggested that the Taylors had any knowledge of the subsequent operations of the companies they set up.

“Indictments are coming and they will be big,” a source said.

Call a doctor. I’m getting priapism again.

There’s more on the companies involved in those transactions here, and not surprisingly, there may also be a Chinese link.

New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office, police and Reserve Bank are also investigating but, in an embarrassment to the country’s authorities, the US Justice Department is preparing indictments a week before the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visits New Zealand.

And we now have our first semi-official confirmation that the cargo was headed just where I’d said it was — Iran, according to “sources” the SMH quotes. The bigger question, of course, is who the Iranians would have transferred those toys to from there, especially the man-portable anti-aircraft missiles said to be aboard.

Sources say international inquiries suggest SP was set up as a “one-time use” company solely to charter the plane; that Iran used SP to pay North Korea; and that SP’s New Zealand address allowed it to use a prominent US bank, unaware of the true purpose, to launder the money to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

GT Group will only say SP was set up “at the request of one of our professional clients based in the United Kingdom”. Sources say the client is the target of US interest. If the Taylors do not reveal the identity of the people they sold SP’s registration to, they are liable to indictment. A US Justice Department spokesman in Manhattan yesterday would not confirm the department’s interest, other than to say it was aware of the issue and a statement would be made later.

I can hardly wait. Readers will recall that according to David Asher, Justice had prepared an indictment of North Korea years ago for the supernote conspiracy, only to see the State Department step in at the last minute and kill the indictment. I don’t doubt that the indictment is still sitting in someone’s hard drive, in a long-expired version of Word Perfect. The rest, of course, is history: we signed Agreed Framework II, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, North Korea disarmed, sheaves of grain sprouted from the blighted earth, and there was much singing of kumbaya, followed by the disciplined shaking of plastic flowers.

Oh, right. I guess I dreamed that part.

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Iran’s History May Be Decided This Friday

I continue to be astonished by the numbers, persistence, and courage of the Iranian people in coming out into the streets to protest the corrupt theocracy, even as that theocracy lowers itself to new depths of brutality to suppress their hopes. The other day, I framed the question that is key to Iran’s fate this way: “I wonder if the security forces can maintain their cohesion as long as the protesters can maintain their courage.” The stakes are rising. There is much evidence that the regime is prepared to escalate the use of deadly force against the people — watch the videos here of police intentionally running over demonstrators with trucks, and firing warning shots. The regime’s worst thugs are hinting of even darker things to come, of a Tienanmen in Tehran:

“In dealing with previous protests, police showed leniency. But given that these opponents are seeking to topple (the ruling system), there will be no mercy,” Moghaddam said, according to the official news agency IRNA. “We will take severe action. The era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed.” [AP, Ali Akbar Dareini]

They mean this literally. The Revolutionary Guards and Basij Militia have recently taken to bashing protestors over the head with nightsticks, sending scores of them to the hospital with serious injuries.

The Tienanmen massacre worked because of the mendacity of the term “Peoples’ Army;” when called upon, the Chinese Army was willing to murder its people by the thousands to protect an oligarchy from the peoples’ will. The same may not be true of Iran. For the first time, there are signs that some elements of the security forces are losing their will to take part in this:

In the middle of a loud, violent brawl in Tehran, Iran, anti-government protesters manage to corner a handful of riot police who were sent to combat them. As the crowd pushes the police against a wall — with screams coming from all directions — a protester points his finger at them. “Why are you doing this?” he yells.

One of the police — the only one whose helmet is off, his face apparently bloody — responds. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.” The other police stand still, trapped by the crowd’s grasp. Then the protester says something else, in one of the most telling signs of the historic anti-government rebellion sweeping through the streets of Iran. He demands that the police call Ayatollah Khamenei — the supreme leader of the nation’s hardline Islamic government — a “bastard.” [CNN]

In some parts of Tehran, protesters pushed the police back, hurling rocks and capturing several police cars and motorcycles, which they set on fire. Videos posted to the Internet showed scenes of mayhem, with trash bins burning and groups of protesters attacking Basij militia volunteers amid a din of screams.

One video showed a group of protesters setting an entire police station aflame in Tehran. Another showed people carrying off the body of a protester, chanting, “I’ll kill, I’ll kill the one who killed my brother.

By late afternoon, coils of black smoke rose over central Tehran from dozens of street fires, and smaller groups of protesters continued to skirmish with police and Basij militia members. In the evening, loudspeakers in Imam Hussein Square, where most of the clashes took place, announced that gatherings of more than three people were banned, witnesses said.

There were scattered reports of police officers surrendering, or refusing to fight. Several videos posted online show officers holding up their helmets and walking away from the melee, as protesters pat them on the back in appreciation. In one photograph, a police officer can be seen holding his arms up and wearing a bright green headband, the signature color of the opposition movement. [N.Y. Times]

Some of the shift of momentum away from the regime arises from a combination of luck and missteps by the regime. The death of 87 year-old ex-Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri is what revived the recent protests. The mourning for Montazeri, once designated as a successor to Ayatollah Khomeini and an opponent of the current regime, came just before the Shiite holiday of Ashura. The always insightful Michael Totten explains the religious significance of the regime’s decision to launch a violent crackdown on this, of all days.

For that reason, the old tricks that worked before aren’t working now — arresting or limiting the movement of opposition leaders, or accusing western nations of stirring the protests. And in a sign that the White House perceives that the momentum has shifted, President Obama has moved further than ever in the direction of supporting the protest movement:

Speaking in Hawaii, Mr. Obama for the first time publicly demanded Iran’s release of “unjustly” detained political opponents. He joined with European leaders in calling for Iran’s leaders to abide by international conventions on the treatment of political activists.

The Iranian people wish for “justice and a better life for themselves,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “the decision of Iran’s leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away.” [WSJ]

Protesters have been met “with the iron first of brutality,” Obama said yesterday in Hawaii, where he is vacationing with his family. “The United States stands with those who seek their universal rights. [Bloomberg]

Below the fold, I give you an extended quote from Robin Wright, a long-time observer of Iran of whom I’m not necessarily fond. Wright has long advocated a soft-line policy toward Iran that accommodates the theocracy. But this very view gives more credibility to Wright’s suggestion that the opposition is now likely to prevail. Imagine Jack Pritchard or Mike Chinoy predicting regime change in North Korea and you get the idea.

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Iran Rises Again

I confess that I’d written off the Iranian protest movement for this year, but I was wrong: the movement actually appears to be spreading to new places and attracting support beyond its traditional base among the students.

Large-scale protests spread in central Iranian cities Wednesday, offering the starkest evidence yet that the opposition movement that emerged from the disputed June presidential election has expanded beyond its base of mostly young, educated Tehran residents to at least some segments of the country’s pious heartland.

Demonstrations took place in Esfahan, a provincial capital and Iran’s cultural center, and nearby Najafabad, the birthplace and hometown of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose death Saturday triggered the latest round of confrontations between the opposition movement and the government.

The central region is considered by some as the conservative power base of the hard-liners in power.

Iranian authorities are clearly alarmed by the spread of the protests. Mojtaba Zolnour, a mid-ranking cleric serving as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the elite and powerful Revolutionary Guard, acknowledged widespread unrest around the country.

“There were many [acts of] sedition after the Islamic Revolution,” he said, according to the website of the right-wing newspaper Resala. “But none of them spread the seeds of doubt and hesitation among various social layers as much as the recent one.” [L.A. Times, Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi]

The regime’s latest move, the arrest of opposition activists, strikes me as the act of a regime in panic. It seems like something that would inflame, rather than suppress, protest.

Sunday’s violence erupted when security forces fired on stone-throwing protesters in the center of Tehran. Opposition Web sites and witnesses said five people were killed, but Iran’s state-run Press TV, quoting the Supreme National Security Council, said the death toll was eight. It gave no further details. The dead included a nephew of Mousavi, according to Mousavi’s Web site, Kaleme.ir. Police denied using firearms. [AP, Ali Akbar Dareini]

Every death means another political funeral for another political martyr.

When I watch events in Iran, I scour the usual news sources, of course, but I also watch Pejman Yousefzadah’s blog — Pejman is originally from Iran — and of course, some of the YouTube channels that show us what traditional media can’t anymore:

Crowds as large and as energetic as these suggest a movement that won’t be suppressed easily. I wonder if the security forces can maintain their cohesion as long as the protesters can maintain their courage.

The North Korean connection? Substantial, of course. Iran is probably the largest single customer of North Korean weapons, and the financier of what North Korea sells to Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other places. The fall of the Iranian regime would shatter the Axis of Evil. It would be a devastating blow to the North Korean regime’s finances and expose more North Korean proliferation efforts in Iran, where numerous North Korean scientists currently reside doing God-knows-what. It would open the way for a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear program, allowing a greater focus on containing North Korea. It would help to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, and it would reinvigorate the advance of representative government in the Middle East. It would strip Hezbollah, Syria, and Iraqi Shiite militias of a source of weapons and funding, also shifting more of our diplomatic attention to North Korea.

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North Korean Arms Shipment Linked to Iran and China

Did I call it or what?

Weapons seized in Thailand from an impounded plane traveling from North Korea were likely destined for Iran, a high-ranking Thai government security official was quoted by Reuters as saying regarding the findings of a team investigating the arms. “Some experts believe the weapons may be going to Iran, which has bought arms from North Korea in the past,” said the official.

The official was quoted as saying the Thai investigating team considered Iran the likely destination because of the type of weaponry, including unassembled Taepodong-2 missile parts. The North Korean missile is a product of joint efforts with Teheran, developed in conjunction with Iran’s Shehab-5 and Shehab-6 missiles. [Jerusalem Post]

We learn more about the shipment’s contents from the Wall Street Journal:

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said late Wednesday that Thai officials had finished opening the 140 or more crates from the plane’s cargo bay and would release a report within a few days on what they found. Some boxes included surface-to-air missiles and 50 or so tube launchers with computerized weapon-controls. There was no immediate evidence of weapons of mass destruction, he said. [Wall Street Journal]

I wonder if the surface-to-air missiles were the man-portable kind, such as the SA-14.

We also learn that the aircraft was leased by Auckland, New Zealand-based SP Trading Company, and that the lease agreement lists one “Lu Zhang” as its Director. The WSJ couldn’t track down anyone from SP Trading to get their side of it, and reporters couldn’t get access to the floor of the building where its New Zealand office is supposed to exist. SP Trading has one New Zealand shareholder and its company offices (or, according to this report, its parent company’s offices) are located in Vanuatu.

If the plane was indeed carrying ballistic missile parts, it would violate all three U.N. Security Council Resolutions sanctioning North Korea’s arms trade: 1695, 1718, and 1874 (see sidebar for the texts).

From the Washington Times, we also learn that the Chinese — their promises to cooperate with international sanctions notwithstanding — allowed the aircraft to pass through their airspace:

Larry A. Niksch, a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service who monitors North Korea’s proliferation activities, said the Bangkok seizure raises serious questions about China’s role. “Two-thirds of the flight path of that plane was over Chinese territory,” he said. “It should have raised Chinese suspicions.”

The Obama administration brought up concerns about North Korean use of Chinese airspace for arms exports this summer – shortly after the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning such transfers – but has yet to receive a meaningful response, U.S. officials said. “North Korean proliferation by air is an important matter for us, and [Philip] Goldberg brought it up during his meetings in July,” said one official, referring to an Asia trip by the State Department envoy for the implementation of Resolution 1874. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing private diplomatic communications.

The resolution, which China supported, lists detailed procedures on how to deal with suspicious vessels and illegal cargo on the high seas, but it is somewhat vague when it comes to air cargo. In most cases, regardless of the destination of a flight originating in North Korea, it would have to refuel in China or at least fly over its territory, Mr. Niksch said.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted officials in Beijing in July as saying that inspections of air cargo should be carried out only if there is specific evidence of wrongdoing. “China has been faithfully implementing relevant U.N. resolutions,” Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Wednesday. “As to whether the North Korean plane violated U.N. resolutions, it’s up to the U.N. Security Council to make a judgment.” [Washington Times, Nicholas Kralev]

A look at the great circle route between Pyongyang (ZKPY) and Tehran (THR) explains why China’s “three monkeys” approach to North Korean proliferation is so helpful to Kim Jong Il’s sanctions-busting. And that’s a generous interpretation, given the evidence that China actively helps North Korea acquire and proliferate weapons.

So what is the Obama Administration going to do about this?

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Axis, Schmaxis, Part 11: Iran Equipping Terrorists With North Korean Weapons

This Washington Post article, in addition to being an interesting and entertaining read, confirms my immediate suspicions about that shipment of North Korean arms recently interdicted in the Persian Gulf:

Inspectors from the United Arab Emirates quickly swarmed the ship and uncovered a truck-size container packed with small arms made in North Korea. Concealed deeper in the ship was the real find: hundreds of crates containing military hardware and a grayish, foul-smelling powder, explosive components for thousands of short-range rockets.

The nature of the cargo, seized in July and described for the first time in interviews with officials and analysts in the UAE and Washington, has raised fears that Iran is ramping up efforts to arm itself and anti-Israel militias in the Middle East. Israeli officials have warned that they may use force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The freighter seized in this port enclave was one of five vessels caught this year carrying large, secret caches of weapons apparently intended for the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Palestinian organization Hamas or the Quds Force, a wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that supports insurgents in Iraq, according to U.S. and U.N. officials and intelligence analysts. In three cases, the contraband included North Korean- or Chinese-made components for rockets such as the 122mm Grad, which has a range of up to 25 miles and which Hamas and Hezbollah have fired into Israel.

Among the weapons components discovered aboard the ANL Australia were 2,030 detonators for 122mm rockets, as well as electric circuitry and a large quantity of solid-fuel propellant, according to an account given by UAE and U.N. Security Council officials. The materials were bought from North Korea and shipped halfway around the globe in sealed containers, labeled as oil-drilling supplies, that passed through a succession of freighters and ports. [Washington Post]

The supreme irony here may be that it was Christopher Hill who made it his single-minded mission to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for a list of predictably broken promises. To reward Hill for this stellar accomplishment, President Obama made him the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, a country where North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism may very well be killing Americans and Iraqis even today. Christopher Hill should have resigned a long time ago. If any further reason were needed, and as if his lackluster performance in Iraq were not enough, this is yet another reason to call for his head.

The Post goes on to tell us something about the volume of this arms trade and the lengths to which the Axis of Misunderstood Nations goes to conceal it:

The route chosen by North Korea to deliver the rocket components eventually seized by the UAE was hard to track. According to shipping records, the 10 large cargo containers left the North Korean port of Nampo on May 30 on a North Korean vessel, and two days later they were transferred to a Chinese ship in the port city of Dalian, in northern China.

From there, the containers were ferried to Shanghai, where on June 13 they were moved to a third ship, the ANL Australia, a Bahamian-flagged freighter owned by a French consortium. Spokesmen for the freighter’s owner and operator say they received sealed cargo containers along with manifests that listed the contents as oil-well equipment.

By mid-June, the cargo had left Shanghai on the ANL Australia, which followed a meandering course through East and Southeast Asia, pausing in mid-July in Dubai, one of the world’s largest seaports. Then it left on the final leg of its journey, to Shahid Rajai, on the shores of Iran’s Strait of Hormuz.

Speculate for yourself as to why the Chinese didn’t allow an inspection of the cargo in Shanghai. Though hardly conclusive proof by itself, in the context of plenty of other evidence, it’s more reason to suspect that China is trying to help North Korea evade the effect of international sanctions.

The Post’s article strongly suggests that North Korea continues to sponsor terrorism to this very day, probably knowingly. Clearly, President Bush erred when he removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism without securing any verifiable assurance that North Korea would end that sponsorship. It was, of course, the broken promise of denuclearization that induced Bush to commit that error, a promise that was obliterated with North Korea’s last nuclear test. Now, President Obama is compounding Bush’s error by not restoring North Korea even after the North makes its sponsorship more flagrant than ever, and even despite North Korea’s use of its official state media as an instrument of terrorism.

The news isn’t entirely bad. This report does give me a good excuse to finally post on some gently pre-owned links about North Korea’s “highly sophisticated international network for the acquisition, marketing and sale of arms and military equipment,” as detailed in a recent report for the U.N. Security Council, the group that brought us resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874, none of which seems to have dented this sort of activity until this year.

The report said there were “several indications that the DPRK (North Korea) is engaged in trade, transactions and activities proscribed by (U.N.) resolutions … and is seeking to mask these transactions in order to circumvent the Security Council measures.”

The six experts said there were several different techniques employed by the isolated communist state to conceal its involvement.

“These include falsification of manifests, fallacious labeling and description of cargo, the use of multiple layers of intermediaries, ‘shell’ companies and financial institutions to hide the true originators and recipients,” the report said.

“In many cases overseas accounts maintained for or on behalf of the DPRK are likely being used for this purpose, making it difficult to trace such transactions, or to relate them to the precise cargo they are intended to cover.”

The experts said North Korea likely also used correspondent accounts in foreign banks, informal transfer mechanisms, cash couriers “and other well known techniques that can be used for money laundering or other surreptitious transactions.” [Reuters]

Separately, a new report by the Congressional Research Service informs us that Iran buys $2 billion — yes, with a “b” — in North Korean “military equipment” each year, including midget submarines.

Who supposes that this shadowy international proliferation racket only came into being after Agreed Framework II finally fell apart, or after North Korea was removed from the terror-sponsor list?

Related: Did you know that back in 1982, China gave Pakistan enough enriched uranium for two bombs? If that’s so, isn’t it plausible that China or Pakistan did the same for North Korea?

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Commentary on the UAE Weapons Seizure

The shipment of RPG’s and detonators to Iran being akin to shipping snow to South Dakota in February, I continue to be curious about the ultimate destination for those weapons. Like GI Korea, I think it makes sense that Iran might have been using North Korea as a plausibly deniable source for weapons it planned to give to Shiite militias in Iraq, or to al Qaeda. Iran, after all, is a major manufacturer of antitank missiles, including RPG’s, in its own right. It gives me cause to fear that Iran is planning some kind of Easter Offensive for Iraq. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes that this could have been anything but a willful effort by both Iran and North Korea to arm terrorists.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss.

But the reason I’m posting this is simply to link to some commentary by Claudia Rosett and Don Kirk on the story.

Update: Here, on the other hand, is the kind of baseless conspiracy theory I don’t even like to see printed in an adult publication. I’m no fan of Vlad Putin to be sure and put very little past him, but I think it’s unbecoming of Time to go to print with a story based entirely on one guy’s speculation.

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UAE Intercepts N. Korean Arms Ship


[The ANL Australia, photo from here]

The ship was on its way to Iran, carrying weapons whose trade is embargoed by UNSCR 1874:

Diplomats at the UN identified the vessel as the Bahamian-flagged ANL-Australia. The vessel was seized some weeks ago. The UN sanctions committee has written to the Iranian and North Korean governments pointing out that the shipment puts them in violation of UN resolution 1974. [Financial Times, Simeon Kerr and Harvey Morris]

Because they probably had no idea. (Note — the article misstates the number of the U.N. resolution.)

The authorities seized “military components”, but the vessel has since departed, a person familiar with UAE thinking said. The seizure took place in the UAE, but not the shipping hub of Dubai, the person added.

This report gets a bit more specific about the cargo:

Diplomats told the Financial Times that the vessel is still being held in the UAE, adding that various forms of basic weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades ““ which had been labeled as machine parts ““ were found onboard. [Washington TV]

Rocket-propelled grenades are some of the least expensive, most ubiquitous weapons in the world. The Soviet designed RPG-2 and RPG-7 are particularly cheap and common models, although they’re still extremely potent weapons.


[image from here]

It’s difficult to imagine that Iran, a country that manufactures explosively-formed penetrators and supplies them to terrorists, would need to import any of those. Then again, the North Koreans were recently reported to be reengineering, manufacturing, and exporting sophisticated Russian-designed Kornet antitank missiles to Syria for Hezbollah’s use.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss.

Previously, North Korea’s Kang Nam I turned back before arriving from Burma, apparently after Burmese officials were pressured to agree to search the ship. More recently, Indian authorities boarded and searched a North Korean ship, but apparently found no prohibited cargo. All teasing about “angry letters” aside, UNSCR 1874 seems to be having a real effect on North Korea’s arms trafficking. A resolution is as good as its implementation, of course. This time, the implementation has been far better than it was after UNSCR 1695 and 1718, passed in 2006 after a round of North Korean missile tests and a nuke test, respectively.

The seizure of this shipment reveals North Korea’s flagrant violation of at least the latest of these resolutions just as North Korea launches another of its periodic displays of superficial non-belligerence, which is what passes for charm in North Korean terms. If they’re smiling sweetly, it probably means they’re stabbing us in the back.

Hat tips and thanks to two readers.

Update: The Wall Street Journal adds that the shipment also included detonators, and notes that the seizure will likely trigger investigations in several countries:

According to the Security Council diplomat, the weapons were carried on an Australian vessel, the ANL-Australia, which was flying under a Bahamian flag. According to an Aug. 14 letter sent to the U.N. sanctions committee, the exporting company was an Italian shipper, Otim, which exported the items from its Shanghai office.

“The cargo manifest said the shipment contained oil-boring machines, but then you opened it up and there were these items,” the diplomat said. ANL and Otim officials couldn’t immediately be reached to comment. [….]

The Security Council official said the sanctions committee will conduct its own investigation and is likely to send out letters to all countries who had companies involved in the shipment, including Italy, Australia and France, where the parent company of ANL is based.

“All of these countries are going to be investigating, interacting with their shipping firms, with their private sector and saying: There was a possible violation here. What are you doing to make sure you have total transparency on all exports and imports into North Korea?” the diplomat said. “That’s why this matters.”

A spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Australian government is aware of the incident and is investigating to determine whether any Australian laws may have been broken. [Wall Street Journal, Peter Spiegel and Chip Cummins]

This is probably the least dramatic and most significant part of the story, because what it’s likely to lead to a cooperative, multinational investigation of North Korea’s proliferation networks — how they solicit, conceal, and finance their transactions; which individuals, agencies, and trading companies are involved in arranging them; where their bank accounts are; and how they recoup their profits without having their assets blocked by Treasury. It may also lead to the blocking of additional North Korean assets and accounts. The weapons themselves are secondary. The proliferation network and it financial tendrils are the issue. This could be a significant blow to both.

The Journal also says the seizure “could also raise fresh questions about North Korea’s intentions.” Not to me it wouldn’t, but it might to that great mass of unteachable people who are easily swayed by atmospherics.

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The Iranian Revolution: On Again

Two weeks ago, I had resigned myself to the view that it was all over except for the show trials.  But the discontent just won’t go away.

After the sermon, downtown Tehran erupted in violence. Security forces attacked demonstrators, older and grayer than recent gatherings, who were chanting “Death to the dictator!” and “God is great.”

Tear gas filled streets as protesters sought to enter the gates of the university, which riot police had locked. The crowds swarmed through downtown, chanting slogans, lighting cigarettes and holding them in front of their faces to counter the effects of the tear gas.    Masked demonstrators also set fire to trash in the middle of roadways to burn off the tear gas, videos posted on YouTube showed. One group shut down two highways, while a second handed flowers to smiling policemen and kissed them on the cheeks, according to witnesses.

Another large group gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior, which is under the control of Sadegh Mahsouli, a wealthy ally of Ahmadinejad.  “Mahsouli! Mahsouli! Give my vote back,” they chanted, according to a video posted to YouTube.  [L.A. Times, Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim]

The press can’t confirm that the crowds are back to what they were weeks ago, but Iranians believe they are:

Reformist websites estimated that more than 1 million people participated. That number could not be confirmed, but even supporters of the hard-line camp who attended the prayer session to show support for Khamenei acknowledged that the crowds were huge.  “Mousavi caused all these problems,” said a 50-year-old man who identified himself only by his first name, Hossein. “This is his fault.”

As night fell, the boisterous roar of “God is great” could be heard from rooftops across the capital in what has become a daily gesture of protest against Ahmadinejad, who is to be sworn in for a second term early next month.

This video, obviously uploaded by one of the protesters, shows the crowds in front of the Interior Ministry and has great captions:

I’ll just add a few observations. First, it’s a strange thing to see something like this start with a speech by a man as corrupt, and as widely reviled for his corruption, as Rafsanjani.  I suspect that in these times, the Shah could sprout from his dusty repose, bony fingers first, zombie-hobble his way to the top of a soapbox in Tehran, and get 15% of the vote simply by croaking out a criticism of Ahmedinejad.  That wouldn’t mean that the Shah or his policies had any popular appeal of course; it would be negative turnout, Iranian style.  To take it a step further, I doubt that even Mousavi really commands the deep love of the people for anything other than the alternative he represents.

Second, it’s apparent that the regime became a victim of the propaganda that its system was somehow democratic.  I certainly don’t believe that it ever was.  I know how the candidate slates were manipulated and the opposition had been silenced, and I don’t doubt that vote counts have been rigged for years.  But whether we believe anything has really changed or not, the Iranian people believe that a legitimate franchise they had possessed until very recently has been stolen from them.

Third, I don’t believe that anyone really knows what kind of a system of government the Iranian street really wants right now, and I’m sure the Iranian street is fractured about that, too.  Some probably want things to go back to what they were under Khomeini, which they won’t without the man and the long-lost milieu of revolutionary zeal. Some probably want Khomeini lite, and some may want a system that we’d call democratic, though with a thousand permutations of what speech and religions they’d still ban.  A consistent theme does emerge theme does emerge, however.  “Azadi” means “freedom:”

A democratic system could handle those differences, of course.  They’ll have their great debates about legalizing Bahai’i and the extent to which they’d protect the freedom of Christians and Jews, and given the chance, they’ll eventually get it right.  What gives me this confidence?  Mostly, the demographics and appearance of the crowds.  Their dress, their style, and their adept embrace of technology is consistent with, and probably inspired by, that of people in other countries Iranians identify as “liberal,” as the word is used in the classical John Stuart Mill sense.  It’s reasonable to associate the desire of young men and women to cast off their ashes and sackcloth and be beautiful to the opposite sex with social liberalism, which translates to political liberalism in Iran to a larger extent than it might in Europe or America.  An Iranian government that reflects the will of the people will reflect their will to live fulfilling lives, not their bitterness that fulfilling lives are denied them.

And as hard-liners repeated their signature cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” Mousavi supporters overwhelmed them with chants of “Death to Russia” and “Death to China,” referring to the two U.N. Security Council members that have shielded Iran from much tougher sanctions over its nuclear program.

Fourth, “death to China” is — I admit it — a refreshing thing to hear on several levels.  These kids today — I doubt they really mean the death of the Chinese nation-state and its people; to the extent they’re doing anything but answering the nostalgaic chants of the Basij, they mean the death of an oppressive system of government.  That happens to be a sentiment I share, and one that plenty of Chinese probably also share, though see “third” above for an idea of the permutations that probably takes on. Russia’s flag was torched, too.  From my rudimentary Persian, I can clearly make out “marg bar rusieh,” or “death to Russia,” at the end of this one:

You can hear the same thing two minutes into this one, which also gives you some idea of the size and anger of yesterday’s crowds:

At three minutes in, I thought I caught “marg bar sinieh,” meaning “death to China.” China’s foreign policy, of course, is most deeply admired by a smirking clique of Machiavellians in the West who are fond of mislabeling themselves as “realists.”  This school of thought is faddish today among grad students and think tank interns who think they’re just a fellowship away from being issued a box of Partegas and a key to the smoke-filled room where the civil liberties of swarthy peoples abroad are traded away for tariff agreements.  They’re the progeny of those who invested our Iran policy in propping up the Shah despite his murderous Savak (I wonder if they can really explain how that’s served our interests since?).  Today, they’d invest us in Ahmedinejad the same way, or at least stand conspicuously aside while the Basij does what it will.  They’re the ones who disengaged us from Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s when the Taliban was taking over, and who still grovel at the feet of the Saudis, who’ve brainwashed half of the Muslim world with medieval nihilism.  They’re also the ones who’d have fled Iraq in 2006 and left the next Afghanistan behind.  What “realism” almost always means in practice is to the pursuit of short-term pecuniary interests and the path of least immediate resistance. The reality of “realism” is often little more than an intellectual veneer over poor impulse control and blindness toward the longer-term consequences of what seems easy and profitable today.  China, as we’re seeing, will pay some long-term price for its conduct, though never what America would, simply because hating America is so often the mirror image of lust for its culture and envy of how we live.  Hate will always be the mirror image of that to some extent, especially when we threaten the power of dictators, mullahs, commissars, power-hungry intellectuals, and nosy aunts everywhere by advocating individual freedom and empowerment. China can’t be hated as much as we can until it becomes an object of envy, and China will never inspire envy as long as its creativity and enterprise are suppressed by an increasingly permanent class of unaccountable bureaucrats. That’s why the biotech industry where I live has drawn in such a large population of China’s brightest young people. China isn’t a magnet for anyone but starving North Koreans.

Fifth, a change of government in Iran would not bring the immediate end of Iran’s nuclear program or its support for terrorism in Lebanon, Iraq, or elsewhere, but if reasonable people end up in power, it would mean that ordinary diplomatic methods would have some real chance for ending those things though a process of negotiated give-and-take.  As long as Ahmedinejad and Khameini are in power, investing our hopes in diplomacy alone could not be further from reality.

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Iran on the Brink

It has started:

Witnesses said police fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of protesters who rallied in Tehran Saturday in open defiance of Iran‘s clerical government, sharply escalating the most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Eyewitnesses described fierce clashes near Revolution Square in central Tehran after some 3,000 protesters chanted “Death to the dictator!” and “Death to dictatorship!” Police responded with tear gas and water cannons, the witnesses said.

English-language state TV said a blast at the Tehran shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had killed one persona and wounded two but the report could not be independently confirmed due to government restrictions on independent reporting.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned opposition leaders on Friday to end street protests or be held responsible for any “bloodshed and chaos” to come.

Eyewitnesses contacted by The Associated Press said thousands of police and plainclothes militia members filled the streets Saturday to prevent rallies. Fire trucks took up positions in Revolution Square and riot police surrounded Tehran University, the site of recent clashes between protesters and security forces, one witness said.  [AP]

If you believe that prayer can interrupt evil plans, this would be the time.  Something terrible is starting to look imminent, and I’m not sure that mere expressions of concern will do much to prevent it.

Quiet threats to meet violence by arming the opposition might.  There are limits to what non-violence can do in the face of brutality, but an armed population is a very difficult thing to subjugate.

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