Talking with Iran, "normalizing" with North Korea Updated

Bush administration supporters, that giant whooshing sound you hear may be a couple of rugs getting pulled out from under us.

Item 1: North Korea.

SEOUL — North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator was on his way to the United States yesterday for talks on issues that a State Department official said would include the first steps toward the normalization of diplomatic relations.
The trip, which coincides with the first high-level talks between North Korea and South Korea in more than four months, reflects the rapid easing of tensions with President Kim Jong-il’s regime since North Korea agreed this month to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel oil and other concessions.

It’s tough to know from the outside what to make of all the sudden moves on the Korea front in the past couple of weeks. An optimistic take would be that the Proliferation Security Initiative and related moves to box in Pyongyang along with patient diplomacy among the other nations in the six party talks have succeeded to the point that the North Koreans have become more pliable. Not necessarily more trustworthy, but at least more pliable. A pessimistic take would be that the Bush administration is tired of the fight and has more or less capitulated on the international crisis front, perhaps to buy some goodwill with a Democrat congress that’s gearing up to turn the next two years into a subpoena blizzard and to take one member of the axis of evil out of the negative headlines for a while. Time will tell which is closer to the truth. But this is interesting:

The breakthrough was also preceded by negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. Treasury Department, which in September 2005 successfully pressured a bank in Macao to freeze $24 million of Pyongyang’s overseas holdings.
“Changes are being made to lift the sanctions in the Office of Foreign Assets Control,” a source familiar with the U.S. financial community told The Washington Times yesterday. The Office of Foreign Assets Control is tasked with tracking the assets of the United States’ enemies.
“Officials there are saying, ‘If you look at our documents, North Korea, Iran and Cuba were the enemies of the United States,’ ” the source said. ” ‘Going forward, we are looking at Iran and Cuba.’ “

North Korea is cash starved, to the point that $24 million, chump change to the average US state government, does seem to have made them more eager to talk. China growled after the dud nuclear test as well, and China is the source of most of North Korea’s economy. And if you add in the potential effectiveness of the PSI, which was built to halt North Korea’s major export business–weapons–it is possible that the North Koreans are doing most of the conceeding. As I said, time will tell.

On to Item 2: Iran.

Notice that the story above still listed Iran as an enemy of the US. That makes a great deal of sense for many reasons, not least of which is Iran’s meddling with the insurgency and Shia militias in Iraq. So what to make of this?

President George Bush signalled a dramatic shift in his Middle East policy last night by agreeing to discuss the future of Iraq with Iran and Syria.

His move comes despite his belief that the two countries are fuelling the insurgency that has led Iraq into civil war.

President Bush, President George Bush signalled a dramatic shift in his Middle East policy last night by agreeing to discuss the future of Iraq with Iran and Syria
America last night held open the possibility of one-to-one talks with Iranian ministers

The US will attend a conference in Baghdad next month to discuss the “stabilisation” of Iraq with its six neighbours, including Iran which Mr Bush once described as part of an “axis of evil”.

A second meeting is due to be held in April and the Americans last night held open the possibility of one-to-one talks with Iranian ministers, which the US has previously refused to do unless Teheran suspended its uranium enrichment programme.

The press like to halt “dramatic shifts” in Bush thinking that turn out to be less dramatic than initially reported, so skepticism is warranted. And there are a few things worth noting here. First, Iraq is organizing the meeting and it invited Iran and Syria. We want Iraq to be sovereign, we’re going to have to live with it doing things we don’t like once in a while. Second, there may or may not be bilateral talks between the US and Iran at this meeting–that’s not a done deal. Third, the US may–I said may–take the opportunity to confront Iran with evidence of its involvement in Iraq at this meeting, right in front of all of the other participants. That would a smackdown worthy of the name, if it happens.

But again, we’re confronted another set of possibilities that don’t bode well. The Bush administration has been notoriously slow to acknowledge that the Iranians have been arming and training the various bad actors in Iraq. When it finally has acknowledged this, the left has reacted with predictable scorn–at the administration for saying anything, not at Iran for playing a part in killing US troops on Iraqi battlefields. And we’re confronted both by the president’s weak position in Washington and in public opinion, and the anemic war morale on the homefront. Put those factors together and this Iran move looks like it could be a capitulation both to the Democrats and to one of the two surviving members of the axis of evil. Add in the “normalization” going on with the other member as noted above, and well, it just feels like a couple of rugs have just been yanked from the floor.

Time will tell. I lean toward the pessimistic side on both stories but I’ll withhold my own judgement for now, and wait to see where things go over the next few months.

Update: Frank Gaffney is pessimistic.

Update: Fodder for optimists:

The lead U.S. envoy in nuclear talks with North Korea told lawmakers Wednesday that U.S. financial restrictions connected with North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting had forced banks around the world to question their business dealings with Kim Jong Il’s government.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the measures, which the United States is working to resolve as part of a recent disarmament agreement with Pyongyang, had hurt the communist government by hindering its access to the international financial system.

Hill spoke as the State Department announced that he will meet with his negotiating counterpart, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, in New York on March 5-6 to discuss first steps toward establishing normal ties after decades of hostility that followed the 1950-53 Korean War.

It’s possible that the banking restrictions together with PSI have brought the North Koreans to a point painful enough to make them pliable. I’m not sold on that, but it was the point of both activities. If that’s the case, when will the Democrats acknowledge that Bush’s approach has borne fruit? Right after pigs break Mach 5 near the edge of space, is my guess.