Care­ful on the Iran deal: North Korea is watch­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS -

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.

CHIP SO­MOD­EV­ILLA, GETTY IM­AGES

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