Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

“Transactional” Nuclear Diplomacy May Provide a Path toward “Grand Bargains” with Iran and North Korea

| Apr. 29, 2021

As the Biden Administration re-engages Iran and reviews US policy toward North Korea, analysts are debating whether a “transactional” approach that focuses on reducing the nuclear threat is sufficient, or whether the U.S. should seek a transformative “grand bargain” that addresses other “malign behaviors.” Proponents of “transactional” diplomacy argue that comprehensive deals to transform political relationships are unrealistic, and that zeroing in on the most pressing issue is the only way to make any tangible progress. The “grand bargainers” retort that any deal that isn’t comprehensive will face fatal opposition from important stakeholders.

Both arguments have some merit, but the perceived distinction between them is a false one: Past engagements with Iran and North Korea were premised on the hope that piecemeal transactions could provide a platform for more sweeping diplomacy. And the best nonproliferation progress has been achieved when all sides perceived diplomatic transactions as incremental steps toward broader reconciliation.

America made its first bet that transactional nonproliferation diplomacy could pave the way for broader engagement almost two decades ago, when it signed the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. It was clear to US diplomats at the time that denuclearization and transformation of the US-North Korean relationship would be a package deal, because North Korea would lack incentive to fully disarm if that relationship remained hostile. Yet, at first glance, the framework looks like a quintessential nuclear transaction – the North agreed to dismantle its plutonium reactors in exchange for civilian power reactors from the West. While the text of the agreement calls for both sides to “move toward full normalization of economic and political relations,” its vagueness on how to implement that goal meant that it was essentially postponed for later negotiations to flesh out. But if we hold that stated political goal in our minds, and alongside it analyze the physical task of building and operating large Western power reactors in North Korea, it becomes clear that the political effects of those reactors would extend far beyond the nuclear realm...

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For Academic Citation:

Christopher Lawrence, "'Transactional' Nuclear Diplomacy May Provide a Path toward 'Grand Bargains' with Iran and North Korea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 29, 2021.

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