U.S. President Donald Trump again expressed his displeasure with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last week, calling it “horrible” and saying Tehran is not in compliance, leaving some to worry that the agreement may be in jeopardy. But what message does that send to North Korea, where a peaceful conclusion to the current nuclear crisis would be likely to end with a similar international deal?
The Iran deal was negotiated between the permanent five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. In exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear program, most international sanctions were lifted, giving the Iranian government access to billions of dollars.
Under the Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear deal is language calling upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles, including launches using that kind of technology. But in both 2016 and 2017, Iran conducted launches that have raised Western concerns about its compliance with the spirit of the agreement.
“The topic of the Iranian regime’s compliance with its international obligations reminds me of the fable of the scorpion and the frog,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told the Security Council in June.
She went on to tell the story of a scorpion that asks a frog for a ride across a river. The frog hesitates, fearful the scorpion will sting him. But the scorpion reassures the frog that they would both drown if he did that. The frog relents and takes the scorpion on his back, but halfway across the river, the scorpion stings him.
“With his last breath the frog asks, ‘Why?’ And the scorpion replies, ‘Because it’s in my nature,’” Haley said, characterizing the scorpion as Iran and the international community as the frog.
Haley is scheduled to travel to Vienna later this month to meet with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who monitor Iran’s compliance with the 2015 deal.
Monitoring the deal
Every 90 days, the U.S. administration must recertify Iranian compliance to the Congress. If it denies certification, then Congress can decide to reinstate unilateral U.S. sanctions. The next certification is due in October.
“I think you’ll see some very strong things taking place if they don’t get themselves in compliance,” Trump warned Thursday when asked about Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded Friday via Twitter:
“POTUS always wanted to kill JCPOA. To avoid isolation, he’s trying to blame it on Iran. Bad faith on top of US violating the letter & spirit,” he wrote, referring to the nuclear agreement by its acronym.
“Clearly President Trump has misgivings about this deal; clearly he wants to see if something can be done about it,” said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Vatanka notes that as long as Tehran abides by the deal, “The United States will have a very difficult time going around the world and asking other countries to join it in this call to overhaul, or in worst case, nullify this agreement.”
Damaging diplomatic initiatives?
Could anxiety that the Iran deal may be in some kind of danger potentially hurt diplomatic initiatives on North Korea? Why sign up for a deal that could be upended by the next U.S. administration?
“Should there be changes in one’s posture, withdrawing from certain agreements that your predecessor negotiated, frankly makes it far more difficult in the future to negotiate any deals with any country on any given issue,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, a former U.S. ambassador and president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York.
“Right now, the North Koreans are in a situation in which they have very little incentive to give up a nuclear program that gives them a considerable amount of bargaining leverage,” said Carla Ann Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Everybody is paying attention to a country that has nothing else,” she added.
Vatanka said neither the Iranian nor the North Korean regimes have demonstrated a suicidal streak.
“A suicidal regime will not stay in power for half a century or more, which is the case of the North Koreans,” he said. “They are looking for a way out.”
Rhetoric and sanctions
“I would certainly cool the rhetoric to lessen chances of having an explosion or a miscalculation,” Robbins said. “I think that should be the No. 1 goal right now.”
The experts say that sanctions and pressure can only go so far and that dialogue is a crucial tool.
“We saw this with Iran, we had very tough sanctions, but we also had an opening for dialogue,” DiCarlo said. “We were open to dialogue; we had dialogue. Obviously, in the case of the DPRK, something similar is going to need to transpire.”
“The recent U.N. sanctions are pretty powerful, in that these and the ones last year, the Chinese are gradually tightening the screws somewhat,” said former U.S. official and Georgetown University professor Bill Brown. “China is in a very difficult spot on this, probably in the most difficult. They are starting to put some real pressure on the North Koreans, especially not buying their coal.”
Coal is North Korea’s biggest export, and in the last three rounds of U.N. sanctions, the international community has worked its way up to a total ban.
Brown notes that while some have criticized China for not fully enforcing previous rounds of sanctions, Chinese trade data from June shows a huge drop in imports from North Korea, an indication that they are strengthening enforcement.
The latest round of sanctions, imposed just more than a week ago, aim to cut North Korea’s export revenue by a third — revenue that the international community says would have fueled the country’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
The experts say economic reform will be the most likely impetus to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table and to dial back his nuclear program.
“If he’s truly denied the kind of trade and economic stimulus that he’s getting from certain countries, it is going to be very, very hard for him to have a viable nuclear program, one that is considered a threat to anybody,” DiCarlo noted.
Getting back to the table
From 2003 through 2009, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States participated in a series of negotiations known as the Six-Party Talks. Chaired by China, they were a multilateral effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. The talks broke down in 2009 when Pyongyang pulled out.
MEI’s Vatanka says a lesson the North Koreans could take from the Iran talks is to keep the discussions multilateral.
“Don’t make this into a conversation between North Korea and the United States, the lesson is bring as many voices into it as you can,” he said. “And that’s where we are with President Trump on the Iran question: By broadening the conversation, it has made it that much harder for the U.S. to rebuild the multilateral front it put together, which leaves the United States either to do nothing or act unilaterally.”