The Meaning of Verification

As North Korea begins to open up to the world, what must they be hearing?

Two of the loudest stories concern Donald Trump’s reactions to countries accused of having active weapons of mass destruction programs. Trump bombed Syria for using chemical weapons, and he has now officially pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran.

But the first thing that needs to be said in any discussion of Syria’s chemical weapons or Iran’s nuclear weapons is the one thing that is seldom said: Syria has no chemical weapons and Iran has no nuclear ones. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) verified Syria to be chemical free, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s consistent and continued compliance with the JCPOA. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Syria has no chemicals and Iran has no nukes: that’s what verification means.

Syria

On September 14, 2013 the United States and Russia finalized a Russian brokered agreement on the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. On January 4, 2016, the OPCW declared the completion of the destruction of all chemical weapons in Syria.

Nonetheless, on April 14, Trump ordered the bombing of Syria because of a claimed chemical attack in Douma, near Damascus. Only days before the missile strikes, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the U.S lacked the intelligence that Assad was responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack. Mattis admitted that the US was "still assessing the intelligence… We’re still working on it."

Days after, however, the US bombed three particular buildings that they claimed housed specific chemicals and chemical production equipment. That’s very precise, specific intelligence. Armed with that proof, why would the US rush to bomb Syria? Why not take that intelligence to U.N. inspectors? Why not hand it over to the OPCW? Why not reveal the illegal Syrian clandestine chemical weapons program to the world?

Russian chemical weapons specialists who were on site found no trace of chemical weapon use. Neither did Red Crescent doctors who treated people. The OPCW inspectors might quickly have answered the question, but their access to the site was blocked by the United Nations department of Safety and Security.

The evidence for Assad’s chemical weapons attack on his own people came from rebel-affiliated and Western financed groups like the White Helmets. The Trump administration has publicly offered nothing further as evidence despite the precise nature of their bombing.

But investigative journalist Robert Fisk has offered something further. Fisk was the first western journalist to make it to Douma. Fisk heard from no local who knew of a chemical weapons attack. He did hear a different version of the story in Douma than the one put out by the White Helmets and accepted by Donald Trump.

The video of victims of chemical attack is real, but the interpretation is false. The suffering is real, but they are not suffering from chemical exposure. They are suffering from oxygen starvation. There was heavy shelling by government forces that night. But this particular night, there was also a huge wind and huge dust clouds choked the tunnels and basements the people were hiding in. The suffering people in the video were struggling from hypoxia, or oxygen starvation. Then a White Helmet "shouted ‘Gas!’" The panic, and the propaganda begun.

When Russia brought seventeen witnesses from Douma to the Hague to testify before the OPCW, the US, U.K., and France not only did not listen to the evidence, they did not show up. The witnesses from Douma supported the story that Robert Fisk had heard when he was in Douma. Each witness was either a victim of that night’s events or a doctor who treated them. Some of the victim witnesses even show up in the White Helmet videos. They all said that there had been no chemical attack: they were sucking in dust, not gas.

The OPCW has verified that Syria has no chemical weapons. The United States and its allies accepted the word of a biased and unreliable source over the OPCW verification team with no additional evidence. They then bombed Syria before they gave the OPCW inspectors a chance to return to Syria. Trump invested in the word of the White Helmets – a group with a significant interest in pinning a chemical weapon attack – over the word of the OPCW.

Iran

The same pattern is manifesting in Iran. In 2015, Iran, the United States, Germany and all the permanent members of the Security Council (P5+1) signed the JCPOA. Every ninety days, the President of the United States has the opportunity to certify that Iran is implementing the agreement. If Iran is in compliance, the US has to continue to honor the agreement; if Iran is not in compliance, the US can pull out of the agreement. But, the US can only cancel the JCPOA if Iran is not in compliance with the agreement. But, Iran is in compliance. The IAEA has repeatedly verified – in eleven consecutive reports since January 2016 – that Iran is fully complying with their obligations under the agreement.

In the absence of evidence, America has turned to deception and dirt. Not able to discredit the deal, Trump tried to discredit the deal makers. Aids of Donald Trump hired the private Israeli intelligence agency Black Cube to "get dirt" on key people who played a role in negotiated the deal. The agency tried to find anything damaging on personal relationships, involvement with Iran-friendly lobbyists or political or personal benefit to the negotiators.

When dirt presumably wasn’t dug, the deal killers turned to deceit. Just two weeks before Trump’s most recent opportunity to decertify the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed to the world proof that "Iran lied, big time, after signing the nuclear deal in 2015." Netanyahu displayed binders with over 50,000 paper files and a wall of CDs that he said were packed with the proof.

But Netanyahu was more Wizard of Oz than statesman. There was nothing behind the curtain. Netanyahu’s "significant new revelations" were a greatest hits tour of old songs that didn’t sell. The binders and discs contained nothing that the IAEA hadn’t seen and dismissed the first time around. Those old attempts to discredit Iran have been carefully discredited by many experts, including Gareth Porter in Manufactured Crisis. The IAEA was finished with them by December of 2015.

That Israel tried so hard to find evidence that Iran has worked on a nuclear weapons program in any way since the signing of the JCPOA and found nothing new is perhaps the best proof that Trump needs to certify that Iran is in compliance with all of its obligations under the agreement. Olli Heinonen, the chief inspector of the IAEA at the time of the JCPOA negotiations – and not someone who was in any way soft on Iran – said that the IAEA first saw the "significant new" evidence that Netanyahu revealed in 2005. Watching Netanyahu’s revelation, Heinonen could only say, "I just saw a lot of pictures I had seen before." Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said that said that, based on first reports of Netanyahu’s presentation, it "has not put into question Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA." Mogherini said that the final word had to go to the IAEA. The final word: the day after Netanyahu’s presentation, the IAEA said that there was "no credible indications" of Iran working on a nuclear weapons program for several years before the JCPOA.

But, as in Syria, Trump accepted the word of a biased source with a significant interest in claiming that Iran has an active clandestine nuclear weapons program over the IAEA’s verification team with no new evidence. Dismissing the IAEA, Trump boasted that Netanyahu’s revelation "showed that I’ve been 100 percent right." And now, citing only Netanyahu’s presentation as evidence, he dismissed the IAEA’s weapons inspectors and verifications and betrayed an international agreement with a partner who was verified to be in full compliance with its agreements.

North Korea

So what does North Korea hear when it listens to all of this? The North Koreans can only learn two things from all of this. The first is to be wary of signing deals with America. Both Syria and Iran gave up their programs (though Iran’s never was a weapons program) only to have Trump and America ignore verification of their compliance in favor of biased sources and turn on their partners: in Syria with bombs and in Iran with pulling out of the JCPOA. How can North Korea confidently agree to give up its only deterrence against American aggression with no assurance that America will honor the agreement and not turn on the now deterrent void country?

The second lesson North Korea might have learned from Iran is that, though you may not be able to trust that you can profit from signing an agreement, you can profit by holding off on signing it. In Losing an Enemy, Trita Parsi has argued that the difference between sanctions and nuclear escalation is that the former is finite and the latter is not. North Korea knows, as Iran did before, that America will eventually run out of things to sanction. But North Korea will not run out of uranium to enrich or missiles to test. North Korea can out last the United States unless the United States is really prepared to go to war.

Trumps bombing of Syria and pulling out of the JCPOA with Iran can only be reinforcing North Korean anxiety that they can’t trust Donald Trump and the United States to honor any nuclear disarmament agreement.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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