President Trump killed the Iran agreement Tuesday, calling it a “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” and reinstating U.S. sanctions against the Iranian government. In doing so, Trump also sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: When it comes to nuclear agreements with the United States, buyer beware.
The Iran agreement — formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — was designed to curtail Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and build nuclear weapons. In that sense, it’s different from what Trump will seek during his summit with Kim, which is to convince North Korea to give up the nuclear arsenal it already has.
Seemingly mindful of how his decision would be received in Pyongyang, Trump announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way to North Korea for another meeting with Kim. But by tearing up the Iran deal, Trump has given Kim little reason to believe that whatever the White House offers in exchange for disarmament will remain in effect long term, experts told VICE News. Trump isn’t just breaking America’s promises, experts said, he’s also indicating that he expects nothing less than the perfect deal from Kim, perhaps setting up the summit to fail.
“This will further cement Kim’s idea that he needs to bank concessions now and leave denuclearization for a kind of vague promise for later,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Trump has seethed over President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, slamming it since the moment the ink dried in 2015. In his announcement Tuesday, he called said that “not only does the deal fail to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it fails to address the regime’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads” to the United States.
“This will further cement Kim’s idea that he needs to bank concessions now and leave denuclearization for a kind of vague promise for later.”
In reality, the deal, which was negotiated with Germany, Britain, China, France, and Russia, made it virtually impossible for Iran to build nukes without the world knowing. In exchange for giving inspectors access to a range of facilities, the U.S. and other countries agreed to end an embargo on Iranian oil and roll back sanctions, generating billions worth of business for U.S. and European companies.
Trump has said repeatedly that he’d never have accepted the deal, and he reiterated Tuesday his complaints about Obama returning seized cash back to Iran and failing to curtail Iran’s support of militant groups in the Middle East.
Now it seems he thinks he can apply his tough-guy tactics on Kim, and killing the Iran deal is meant to send that message, said Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University who was in the running to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.
“Tearing up the deal, which he already hates, in his view doesn’t undercut the U.S position; it strengthens it,” said Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It sends a clear message to the North Koreans that they have to do better than the Iran deal, the Iran deal is not good enough.”
But even hawkish Republicans say that approach is problematic. Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, told Bloomberg recently that while pulling out of the Iran deal “won’t be the end of the world," the rest of the world is watching: “Once you’re in an agreement, you don’t want to send the signal that the United States just turns its back on agreements that are there."
Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert at Columbia University who was involved in the Iran deal negotiations under Obama, warned that withdrawing from the deal weakens the Trump administration’s ability to use a carrot-and-stick approach to sanctions going forward, including potentially with North Korea.
“Sanctions are about to get dealt a nasty blow in terms of applicability to future conflicts,” Nephew said. “The whole idea with the JCPOA was we impose sanctions for a limited period of time and when they’ve done what they’ve supposed to do, we lift them. We don’t negotiate a million times.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently visited the White House hoping to persuade Trump to stay in the deal, warned against Trump’s “strategy of increasing tension,” achieved through threats and sanctions. Macron summed up Trump’s approach: “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.”
Kim has promised nothing yet, but Trump is riding high ahead of their meeting, its date not yet announced. North Korea is expected to release three American hostages soon, and missile tests have paused amid the diplomatic blitz. North Korea is expected to make a show of shutting down its nuclear test site, but experts suspect it’s either unusable anyway or easily repaired.
“The North Koreans are not going to do better than the Iran deal because they don’t have to.”
Trump’s team has said it will take far more to make them satisfied. Pompeo, who secretly met with Kim in April, said the demand is “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling” of North Korea’s weapons program, which should begin “without delay.” National Security Adviser John Bolton called for using the “Libya model,” an example that probably doesn’t sit well with Kim. Less than a decade after Muammar Gaddafi agreed to end his nuclear program in 2003, he was sodomized and killed by U.S.-backed rebels amid an uprising that toppled his regime.
Aaron Stein, a nuclear nonproliferation expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes the most likely scenario is that Kim makes a few additional goodwill gestures and vague promises, at which point Trump declares victory. It would be, he said, nothing like the Iran deal, which demanded a high degree of transparency from Iran.
“We would only dream of getting a monitoring agreement like [the Iran deal] with the North Koreans,” Stein said. “As far as I understand it, the North Koreans aren’t offering an immediate denuclearization. They’re more offering an aspirational pathway to eventual denuclearization.”
The risk, Stein warned, is that Trump actually expects full-blown denuclearization pronto, in which case he may feel slighted by anything less. Lewis agreed with that assessment, and suggested Trump lower his expectations. If diplomacy fails — or Trump feels slighted by whatever compromise Kim offers — the plan B might be war, which North Korea doesn’t seem to want but is prepared to face.
“The North Koreans are not going to do better than the Iran deal, because they don’t have to,” Lewis said. “If this deal collapses, Kim takes his nuclear-capable ICBMs that can hit the United States to bed with him and polishes them at night. That’s not a bad outcome for him. He can say, ‘Come get me, suckers.’”
Speaking briefly to reporters after announcing his decision, Trump said a date and location for his meeting with Kim have been set. He didn’t reveal where or when, and he didn’t offer much in the way of optimism.
“Relationships are building with North Korea,” Trump said. “We’ll see how it works out. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”