WASHINGTON – American commitments under a landmark nuclear deal with Iran offer several lessons for US President Donald Trump as he prepares to enter talks with North Korea over its own nuclear work.
But what those lessons are depends on who you ask.
Critics of the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), say that the 2015 agreement provides Tehran with a path toward a nuclear weapons capacity and shows that Washington is willing to bend over backwards in negotiations when faced with nuclear blackmail.
As North Korea perfects its intercontinental ballistic missile program – the very effort that has precipitated the current crisis, as it threatens the entire continental US homeland – critics of the Iran deal say that it allows for Tehran to perfect that same technology, guaranteeing a similar crisis down the line.
Most importantly, critics say that sticking with the Iran deal despite being so vocally against it will show weakness and a lack of resolve in Trump as he heads toward talks with the North Koreans.
Thus, European officials, who want the deal to remain as is, now fear the recent flurry of diplomacy with Pyongyang increases the likelihood that Trump will actually walk away from the Iran deal, according to a Wall Street Journal report published this weekend.
Advocates of the deal warn that the opposite is the case, that by walking away Trump would project to the North Koreans that he is unreliable. They also warn that Russia and China could question his credibility as a negotiator.
“American credibility, never high with North Korea, would be nonexistent if we destroy the JCPOA,” asserted former Obama administration diplomats behind the 2015 nuclear deal in a joint statement. “If we reject an effective agreement that delivered on all core American requirements related to Iran’s nuclear program, then we will have thrown away one of the few models we have for comparison as we seek the nearly impossible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
But Nikki Haley, Trump’s envoy to the UN, explained in a speech last autumn how the administration believes the opposite is true.
“You can call it ‘non-nuclear’ all you want,” she asserted at the American Enterprise Institute in September, “[but] missile technology cannot be separated from pursuit of a nuclear weapon. North Korea is showing the world that right now.”
“We must consider its ongoing development of ballistic missile technology... And we must consider the day when the terms of the JCPOA sunset. That’s a day when Iran’s military may very well already have the missile technology to send a nuclear warhead to the United States – a technology that North Korea only recently developed.”
Trump has set critical dates in May to talk about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. At around the same time that he is intending to meet with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, for the first time, he is threatening to pull out of the Iran accord without European support for a renegotiation of its terms.
While US strategy on these two negotiations are inextricably linked, Iran and North Korea pose different challenges:
Iran was stockpiling fissile material for nuclear weapons before the talks began, but paused that work during the negotiations.
By contrast, the North Korea already has up to 60 nuclear weapons. Ahead of Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s offer of talks, Pyongyang agreed to pause its nuclear and missile testing, but made no commitment to halt its research and development on ballistic missiles – which is difficult, if not impossible, for the Americans to trace.