Trump’s Iran Threat May Wreck Talks With North Korea
As he prepares for possible talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about controlling the North’s nuclear weapons program, President Trump is facing his most complicated national security challenge so far. He has made the task far harder by threatening to blow up the only other recent deal to control a nuclear program, with Iran.
New York Times reports in its article Trump’s Iran Threat May Wreck Talks With North Korea that after decades of effort, Iran was close to producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb when it reached the deal with the major powers in 2015. Iran gave away about 97 percent of its low-enriched uranium, destroyed 13,000 of its 19,000 centrifuges and pledged to incapacitate a heavy-water facility intended to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
If Iran tries to cheat, the most rigorous technological verification system in the world can detect the violations and alert the world in time to intervene. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the agreement, has repeatedly found Iran in compliance; scores of experts, including American diplomats and military officers, have affirmed the deal’s efficacy. Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told Haaretz on Friday that the deal has delayed the “Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” Although Iran never had a nuclear weapon, the agreement required months of talks and two years of technical and political negotiations.
Now consider North Korea, with 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, and facilities for producing plutonium and enriching uranium, many of which are hidden. Mr. Trump has insisted on the North’s complete and verifiable denuclearization. And, by all indications, he wants it done immediately. Yet by threatening to abrogate the Iran deal and reimpose sanctions Mr. Trump has added to the challenge of making that happen. He has claimed, without a shred of evidence, that Iran is out of compliance, and has complained that Iran is still building ballistic missiles, arming Hezbollah and supporting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. None of these concerns were supposed to be prevented by the deal. He has demanded that Britain, France and Germany fix what he calls “flaws” in the pact by May 12, presumably so he will have someone else to blame when it falls apart.
The president, and his new hard-line team of national security advisers, may think that walking away from the Iran deal will persuade Mr. Kim of his toughness and his determination to secure terms that go far beyond those reached with Iran. More likely, Mr. Kim will see it as proof that the United States cannot be trusted to stick to its commitments and will be reluctant to reach any agreement.
Persuading a country to give up weapons is never easy. The North Koreans have said they need nuclear weapons to deter American aggression. And Mr. Kim has set the pace for most of the recent diplomacy — including his surprise invitation to Mr. Trump and his visit with President Xi Jinping in China. That said, he reportedly told China and South Korea he will discuss “denuclearization” with the Americans.
Denuclearization has had some successes. After Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus inherited thousands of nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States persuaded them to transfer the devices to Russia. South Africa had about a half-dozen warheads but gave them up after the end of apartheid. Libya shed its rudimentary nuclear program under pressure from Britain and the United States after the Iraq war.
And in 1994, most likely before North Korea had any nuclear weapons, a limited agreement with the United States froze the North’s plutonium program for about eight years until it fell apart under President George W. Bush.
A serious negotiation with North Korea would include Mr. Trump pressing Mr. Kim to freeze nuclear and missile testing, halt the production of nuclear weapons fuel and the deployment of nuclear weapons and put an Iran-like verification system in place. But why would Mr. Kim agree to any of that if the Americans walk away from the Iran deal? Why would Mr. Kim, or any future adversary for that matter, assume Mr. Trump is negotiating in good faith?
The Iran deal has achieved what it was intended to do — limit Iran’s nuclear program. There is still hope that something similar can be achieved in North Korea. Indeed, Mr. Trump could contribute in an unprecedented way to international peace and security by engaging with Mr. Kim. That possibility will be squandered, though, if the American president escalates a manufactured nuclear crisis with Iran at the very time he is trying to defuse one with North Korea.