Careful on the Iran deal: North Korea is watching
The United States already faces the growing risk of war with North Korea over the dictatorship’s stubborn grip on nuclear weapons. Now President Trump, by undermining an international accord, threatens to spur a similar confrontation with Iran.
Every indication is that his crucial Iran foreign policy speech this week will allege that the Islamic theocracy has somehow violated the 2015 nuclear agreement that severely limits Tehran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. Trump would be contradicting his two previous findings that Iran remains in compliance with the deal and international inspectors who insist Iran is adhering to the terms negotiated with the U.S. and four other world powers.
There’s no question that Iran is a bad actor on the world stage and that the deal negotiated by the Obama administration, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia is flawed. Its restrictions threaten to expire in 2025, and Iran has used the lifting of severe sanctions to advance its ballistic missile program, fund Hezbollah, and support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
But by focusing solely on the issue of nuclear weapons development, the agreement succeeded — for now — in important ways: preventing a rogue state from acquiring the deadly weapons, heading off a Middle East nuclear arms race, and pulling adversaries back from the brink of a war over Tehran’s nuclear program.
North Korea already has such weapons, and the world is all but powerless — short of bloodshed — from forcing that regime to disarm.
The five other signatories to the Iran accord continue to support the agreement that Trump threatens to undermine. Defense Secretary James Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, tell Congress that Iran is in full compliance, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it is worth retaining.
Fortunately, his decision this week — should it come — won’t scuttle the deal outright, a reality that offers insight into the president’s preference for the appearance of action over the real thing. He effectively punts the next move to Congress, which doesn’t have to act, allowing the deal to drift uneasily into the future.
Congress could also use the threat of renewed sanctions to reopen negotiations, an idea Trump has discussed with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. But it’s unlikely that unilateral demands by the United States would bring Iran back to the negotiating table when it took an economically devastating European oil embargo to help seal the original deal.
Trump’s move to decertify the Iran agreement could also be a step backward in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Why would North Korea or any other country agree to disarm if it knew that America’s word extended only as far as the next president sworn into office? And with the U.S. distracted by a second potential nuclear foe, Washington’s military threat to Pyongyang would be that much less credible.
For all its defects, the Iran deal has prevented the spread of nuclear weapons and a wider war in the Middle East. The United States should use that welcome respite to keep the focus on nuclear diplomacy in North Korea.