By: Jason Geissler
Since North Korea broke the moratorium prohibiting missile testing in 2006, the media has developed a narrative regarding the nation that focuses on missile tests while largely ignoring the history and developments of Pyongyang’s diplomatic ties with the United States. Even following President Trump’s tweet condemning Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to open negotiations with North Korea as a waste of time, attention has mostly been paid to the relationship between Trump and Tillerson rather than the diplomatic work of the Secretary of State. While North Korea’s advancement of nuclear delivery systems is certainly worthy of both reporting and public concern, Kim Jong-Un’s capability to launch a nuclear strike depends on factors beyond technological improvements alone. Rather it is the Trump administration’s diplomatic actions toward Iran that may be the catalyst in either freezing North Korean nuclear and missile development or incentivizing Kim Jong-Un to pursue the ability to strike major US targets with nuclear weapons.
Legislation passed prior to the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran deal, requires the president to recertify that Iran is in compliance with the deal’s nuclear constraints every 90 days. Trump has recertified twice so far, however the second time he did so he was incredibly reluctant and reportedly argued with his security aides. Following that decision, Trump assigned White House staffers to take over Tillerson’s role in determining if Tehran has violated any terms of the agreement by the next recertification deadline on October 15th. With the deadline just three days away, President Trump made a statement on Friday that seemed to indicate his intention to recertify the agreement. However as the date rolled past, President Trump did not recertify.
This does not withdraw the US from the agreement, but rather Congress will now have to decide what to do. It is unclear what the pulse of Congress is on this issue, but in Trump’s Friday statement he made an ambiguous assertion regarding his administration′s intention to negotiate with Congress to pass a set of criteria for future recertification that could set up US withdrawal from the deal. He went on to indicate that if such a negotiation failed, he would find a way to terminate the deal himself.
The agreement makes it clear that the US cannot simply re-impose the same sanctions that were previously lifted using a different reason, however it does permit sanctions for behaviors such as Tehran supporting terrorism. If the US does apply sanctions and Iranian officials feel that they are an attempt to walk back on the nuclear deal, then they have the ability to appeal to a joint committee, composed of representatives from each of the parties to the deal, that could declare the US in violation of the treaty. This would give Iran a legal way out of the deal and weaken US credibility in foreign policymaking.
This is true not only of American adversaries like Iran, but allies such as the EU and the UK, since they have indicated their belief that Iran has so far complied with the agreement and the US should remain in compliance as well. On the day of President Trump′s speech at the UN, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the chair of the Iran deal′s joint committee, Federica Mogherini, told Vice President Mike Pence that the deal “is working, and that Iran is delivering on its commitments, as certified so far seven times by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It is therefore important that a full and effective implementation of the JCPOA, in all its parts and by all parties, continues.”
The Iran deal is well worth keeping together for its own merits. The agreement led to Iran turning over 98 percent of its enriched uranium, ceasing operation of roughly three−quarters of its centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and implementation of an incredibly rigorous inspections regime to ensure Iran’s compliance with the agreement. All of these actions have lengthened Iran’s ability to produce the necessary components for a single nuclear weapon from about three months to at least a year. Additionally, with talk of nuclear armament out of the way, the international community can address other issues with Iran, such as dealing with the Islamic State and negotiating deals regarding the conflict in Syria. Tehran retracting from the agreement would return US-Iranian relations back to where they were prior to its inception, if not worse, undermining American capabilities to make effective change in the region.
Beyond the consequences that the end of the agreement would have on US influence in the Middle East, is the possibility of American diplomatic power and credibility weakening elsewhere. Kim Jong-Un has cited US intervention elsewhere as a primary reason for needing nuclear weapons and effective delivery systems. Any attempt by the US to convince North Korea to reduce its nuclear capabilities will require major security assurances. That entails talks with South Korea, Japan, and China as well as North Korea, which will be long and difficult and almost certainly result in some reduction of American military presence on the Korean Peninsula. But if Kim Jong-Un has paid any attention to the Trump administration’s level of respect for promises made to Iran in the US agreement with them, then he will likely find it hard to believe any assurances made in a nuclear agreement. As such, US and South Korean concessions in any deal with North Korea must be far greater now than if President Trump had simply continued recertifying the Iran deal.
In effect, President Trump has undermined his own administration’s capability to use diplomatic measures to scale back North Korea’s nuclear program. By tearing up the Iran deal, the United States not only puts war with Iran back within the realm of possibility but also makes the chance of war with North Korea greater. The Iran agreement is an excellent example of what diplomacy can accomplish through patient, intentional, well-informed dialogue. Such a process displays to other nations America’s willingness to make deals that can benefit all parties and provide a path for further conversations. Discarding the agreement does precisely the opposite and will hinder US diplomacy for at least the remainder of the Trump administration.