by Mitchell Plitnick
French President Emmanuel Macron likely wrote the epitaph for the Iran nuclear deal as he was leaving Washington. Based on his statements, U.S. relations with Iran and North Korea as well are becoming increasingly dangerous.
“(President Donald Trump’s) experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal,” Macron said. “That’s a strategy of increasing tension … It could be useful.”
Trump accordingly believes that North Korea has agreed to talks because Kim Jong Un was intimidated by Trump’s belligerence. But this is unlikely to be the case. Colin Kahl, the former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, wrote on Twitter that “Trump likely misreads Kim Jong Un’s reasons for agreeing to a summit: to legitimize rather than dismantle his nuclear program. Remember, Kim said North Korea could stop testing because the nuclear program was already complete.”
Although no one can be certain of Kim’s thinking, Kahl’s interpretation is much more consistent with what is known about Kim and the current diplomatic state of play. So, what does the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal mean for the relationships with Iran and North Korea?
Trump will likely refuse to waive sanctions on May 12, the next date by which he is required to do so. The crisis around this issue is entirely manufactured. Not only has the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified 10 times that Iran is keeping up its end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal has already survived over a year of US non-compliance. The deal requires that the United States do nothing to discourage investment in Iran, a clause Trump has violated on a nearly daily basis.
The day after Macron left, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had read the so-called “secret protocol.” His reaction: ““I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat. So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in.”
In response to Mattis’ statement, Richard Nephew, the deputy coordinator for sanctions policy in the State Department in the Barack Obama administration, tweeted, “I helped write the thing until January 2015. It ABSOLUTELY was written with the assumption that Iran will try to cheat. (And with the fear that we would because of our politics.)”
Leaving the deal under these circumstances will lead to unpredictable results. But Trump’s agitation against the deal and threats to unilaterally withdraw have already crippled U.S. credibility around the world. The actual withdrawal will mean another, perhaps final, blow.
In any case, it will serve to further isolate the US. Other countries, including our closest allies, are not going to agree to reinstate sanctions. Tensions with most of our allies, already at unprecedented levels, will go much higher, especially if Trump decides to try to press other countries to participate through the use of secondary sanctions.
Iran will, naturally, cease to cooperate with intrusive inspections. It are also likely to accelerate its nuclear program past the limits agreed to in the JCPOA. That acceleration is not likely to be the “race to the bomb” that US (and Israeli) leaders talk about in such frightening terms. Whether Iran has any real desire to acquire a nuclear weapon is, at best, unclear. But it has no reason to limit its own energy research based on a deal that the US has essentially rendered moot.
That will, doubtless, provide fodder for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the passionately pro-war/regime-change forces in the United States—led by John Bolton—to press the US even closer toward a direct military operation or supporting Israeli action against Iran.
The idea that scrapping the JCPOA can lead to a new deal that not only reinstates the limits on Iran’s nuclear programs but also extracts further concessions on such matters as ICBMs and Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon is so ludicrous it barely deserves a mention. But it merits attention only because it illustrates the failure of France, the United Kingdom, and Germany in addressing Trump’s threats.
The so-called E3’s strategy has been to appease Trump by trying to find a way to keep the JCPOA but press Iran on the other matters. The idea was to “build” on the JCPOA. This approach was fatally flawed from the outset. It lacked the two most basic elements required for success: Iranian participation in the discussion and some ideas of what Iran might be offered in exchange.
As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif put it, “Why should we discuss an addendum? If you want to have an addendum, there has to be an addendum on everything.” Instead, the Trump administration seems to believe that it could win concessions while offering nothing new, except perhaps US compliance with the original deal.
No wonder, then, that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani—who, along with Zarif is taking enormous domestic criticism for striking a deal with Washington only to see the US renege so quickly—said this week, “I have told (Macron) explicitly that we will not add anything to the deal or remove anything from it, even one sentence. The nuclear deal is the nuclear deal.”
Kim Jong Un is obviously observing all of this and learning from it. He is surely seeing that Trump is convinced that the United States can force unilateral concessions while offering little or nothing in exchange. That is surely what John Bolton is telling the president, and Trump himself believes that Kim’s offer to talk shows that this is a correct strategy.
But North Korea has striven for international recognition throughout the history of the Kim dynasty. In many ways, that has been the very purpose of its nuclear weapons program. The Kim dynasty has seen, and continues to see, being a nuclear power as a way not only to ensure that it is not toppled by an outside power (a fear Trump has done more than all other administrations combined to reinforce), but also as a token of legitimacy. It is a way to force the world to take it seriously and to convince its people of the prestige and strength of the regime.
By agreeing to an unconditional summit, Trump unwittingly gave Kim a piece of what he wants free of charge. Kim’s recent concessions—a promise to refrain from nuclear testing and a willingness to discuss disarmament—are not what Trump thinks. Although the suspension of tests is certainly welcome, it’s clear that Kim feels he is secure with a nuclear deterrent. He is, therefore, abandoning the long-time North Korean policy of “parallel advancement” of nuclear power and economic growth to focus on the latter. The growth of the two has hardly been parallel, so Kim may well have decided to catch up on the economic side.
“North Korea suspending its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles is a welcome move, but it’s important for the president and others not to overstate its significance,” Mintaro Oba, a former Obama State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told Vox reporter Alex Ward.
But Trump did exactly that, tweeting, “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Fake News NBC just stated that we have given up so much in our negotiations with North Korea, and they have given up nothing. Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!”
Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and agreed to work toward a peace agreement to end the Korean War, which nevery officially ended. But the other belligerents involved in the war—China and the US—also must agree.
Will Trump be willing to find terms that don’t include North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons? No one believes that Kim will easily abandon those weapons, and despite Trump’s statements to the contrary, Kim has not indicated that he intends to do so. Therefore, an agreement must either accommodate a nuclear North Korea or provide iron-clad guarantees of security for the Kim regime.
It seems unlikely that Trump can accept the former, especially since he seems to be under the impression that he has already gotten a de-nuclearization concession from Kim. And a security agreement would have been a very difficult negotiation in any case. Now that Trump has shown such bad faith on the Iran deal, how can Kim possibly trust that the United States will keep to any agreement?
Some have argued that pulling out of the JCPOA will strengthen the US position with Kim. This is an absurd argument. Scrapping the JCPOA does nothing to improve the US position and everything to undermine its ability to reach a deal. The inescapable conclusion is that proponents of such a view are not interested in any agreement but instead prefer a military solution that leads to regime change.
The aftermath of leaving the JCPOA holds no promise. The short-term future is particularly grim precisely because, to paraphrase Macron, Trump believes he can bully other countries into doing what he wants by employing a stick and offering no carrots. That is a recipe for heightened—even if still simmering—tensions at best and outright warfare seeking the quixotic and self-defeating regime change at worst. Trump’s ignorance of world affairs—combined with his newly minted war cabinet—does not promise many best-case scenarios.