VIENNA — Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, did not take questions from the international press while in Vienna last month for nuclear talks. But he did take time to Skype with an American audience at the University of Denver, where in the 1980s he earned an M.A. and PhD in International Studies.
The Feb. 18 exchange, webcast live, showcased Zarif as the very model of a moderate diplomat. As CNN described it, Zarif “took the unusual step of addressing the American public directly from the talks.”
Zarif’s virtual visit to his alma mater was hosted by the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and moderated by the dean of the school, former U.S. senior diplomat Christopher Hill. The University of Denver has now posted on its web site a video of this “momentous dialogue,” calling it “an event of historic magnitude.”
It was more like an event of historic amnesia. For starters, Hill, the host of this encounter, served from 2005 to 2009 as the chief U.S. envoy to the Six-Party nuclear talks with North Korea. These were a spectacular failure. They were marked by a series of U.S. concessions to North Korea, punctuated in 2006 by North Korea’s first nuclear test.
At the end of 2008, shortly after Hill testified to the Senate Committee on Armed Services that “we have made important progress” toward the denuclearization of North Korea, the talks collapsed. The following year, 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear, test, followed in 2013 by a third. Preparations for a fourth test are now visible.
Zarif, is surely well aware that North Korea made a dupe of Hill, and of the United States. Iran is a close diplomatic ally and longtime missile client of North Korea. The two countries signed a scientific and technical cooperation agreement in 2012, with Iranian top nuclear and defense officials present. According to a report last week by Iran’s Fars News Agency, Zarif upon his post-Vienna return to Iran met last Monday with a visiting North Korean deputy foreign minister, Ri Gil Song, to stress Iran’s interest in expanding ties with North Korea, while Ri pledged North Korea’s support to “Iran’s peaceful nuclear policy.”
North Korea offers a neat template of how a rogue state can haggle, defy, sneak, cheat and lie its way to the bomb. Like North Korea in the Six-Party Talks, Iran with its own flair for nuclear extortion has been elevated at the negotiating table to the status of equal bargaining partner with an array of world powers (in this case the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, collectively dubbed the P5+1, all led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton).3
In the North Korea talks, the bargaining principle as described at the time by Hill was “action-for-action.” In the 2013 Joint Plan of Action that now frames the Iran talks, the slightly wordier plan is for “reciprocal step-by-step.” By July, or maybe early 2015 — depending on how it all goes — these steps are supposed to arrive at the Joint Plan’s grand goal of a “mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Already, in an echo of North Korea’s tactics, Iranian officials have been publicly disputing U.S. administration accounts of what’s on the table.
But in Hill’s interview with Zarif, the subject of North Korea didn’t even come up.