Tearing Up The Iran Nuclear Deal While Negotiating With N. Korea Is Far From ‘The Art Of The Deal’

For a president who claims to be the world’s greatest of deal-maker and even has a best-selling book named Art of The Deal, yesterday’s move to unilaterally rip-up the Iranian nuclear deal just as the administration is entering into high-stakes negotiations with North Korea on their nuclear program is the height of stupidity. It drastically weakens America’s hand at the negotiating table with Pyongyang, and above all else, it shows that passion and long-standing grudges supersede logic and responsible foreign policy decision making within the executive branch’s newly remodeled foreign policy apparatus. 

I really want someone to explain to me how doing this now isn’t bafflingly irresponsible. In fact, let’s put all opinions on the Iranian nuclear deal aside. Let’s say you believe that the U.S. should pull out of the deal. Fine. But how does doing it right now, weeks away from the Kim-Trump summit, make any sense at all and can’t be deemed overtly reckless? Why not just do it in six months from now, after a North Korean deal is signed, should one come to pass at all. 

How can the Trump administration really expect the Kim regime to hand over its only major bargaining chip and insurance policy as to its survival, one that it has spent tremendous resources on and has taken years to develop, based on promises made by the United States? It’s bad enough that the Kim regime is highly cognizant of what happened to Libyan strongman Muammar Gadaffi after he played ball with the United States and ended his nuclear weapons program, one which was far less mature than North Korea’s. Now it has been brilliantly showcased that a deal inked by the U.S., backed by the international community no less, and one that Iran has abided by even by the Pentagon’s top civilian and uniformed officials own evaluations, can be torn up on a whim by this presidency or the next.   

This reality is especially problematic for the side giving up major capabilities as once the weapons, their manufacturing and support infrastructure, the delivery systems they are to be mated with, and other elements of a nuclear weapons program are gone, bringing them back becomes a very expensive and time-consuming task. North Korea in particular, which the White House is demanding immediately denuclearize, will now have to make a decision to do so knowing full well that even after they have complied, the benefits of doing so can evaporate in an instant. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if that means they get all their capabilities back immediately, but that isn’t how it works. 

North Korea can and likely will use the White House’s decision to rip-up the Iran nuclear deal as a reason to stand firm on certain aspects of a proposed denuclearization agreement during negotiations. They can also use it to play to the international community, referencing it as an example of how Washington is prodding them to do something totally illogical and even suicidal. They can then underline how a much slower denuclearization process—one that may not include giving up their current arsenal for years or even decades, if ever, is the only acceptable compromise. 

In addition, if the U.S. walks away from the table because Pyongyang is unwilling to simply hand over their prized weapons immediately in what would already be a phenomenal capitulatory act, North Korea will simply say doing so results in no actual guarantee that the terms agreed upon will remain in play as promised. The international community, especially Russia and China who are closely involved with North Korea, are now unlikely to disagree with such a conclusion.

So once again, even if you think the Iran nuclear deal should be torn up, why do it at this incredibly strategic moment, a time in which we are dealing with disarming another rogue regime that actually has verified nuclear capabilities and the delivery systems that could potentially convey warheads over long ranges? 

There has been zero hard intelligence presented that points to Iran reconstituting its nuclear program, and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandiose presentation on ‘new information’ regarding Iran’s nuclear program featured no such smoking gun. In fact, it was a seemingly desperate act to package old information into some sort vague case to end the nuclear agreement and deal with Iran in other ways, with military action always seeming the underlying preferred option. It basically said that Iran has lied in the past about its nuclear program, which is not news. And if the fact that Iran fibs about its military capabilities is a reason for war, how many times would there have been unchecked combat over the Persian Gulf over the last four decades?

Even America’s credibility when it comes to applying military pressure on North Korea is damaged by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. It’s likely that tensions are going to rapidly rise in the Middle East after this decision, and countering that is going to take more of the Pentagon’s focus and warfighting capacity. An actual war with Iran is a whole other story. 

Newly minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lands in Pyongyang today for his second trip to North Korea. Three U.S. prisoners held by North Korea were handed over as a goodwill gesture, but remember, Kim’s top priority is just getting to the table and being seen as an equal with the leader of the free world, not necessarily what comes from that meeting. The regime has shown no real signs that it is willing to fork over its nuclear weapons anytime soon. So getting the prisoners handed over is a great thing and should be commended, but it is not a sign that North Korea plans on capitulating to the United States as it is being asked., MATTHEW LEE/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea knows full well that drastically heightened tensions with Iran mean that the U.S. can’t pressure it like it had previously when it comes to raw military might. And the prospect of fighting two potentially very bloody and open-ended wars in two drastically disparate theaters is something the U.S. will struggle with confronting, and especially in terms of sustaining those operations over the long haul. 

In addition, either war would result in a massive destabilization in the world markets, and one with Iran, in which a quarter of the world’s oil supply could be cut off overnight, would be absolutely devastating financially. That’s not to mention that an Iranian conflict would also include a war on Israel’s own borders via Tehran’s proxies, and it even puts the Mandeb Strait and shipping through the Red Sea at risk.

Since day one of this administration, Iran has been in its crosshairs. Disgraced general and short-term National Security Advisor Mark Flynn had his little impromptu statement in the White House briefing room shortly after coming into office. Fast forward to today and the Iran hawk dream team now fills out Trump’s national security and diplomatic cadre, with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor. With this crew in place, it’s unsurprising that Trump’s weariness of the Iranian nuke deal has turned into outright contempt for it. 


But what’s most telling is how little thought has gone into what comes next. I implore you to read in full the transcript of this off-camera Q&A between a senior State Department official and reporters. Deeming it alarming is an understatement.  

Even as Trump proclaimed in his canned statement that he has consulted his European allies before making this decision, none of them agree with it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, they warn of how terrible a move this is and are not willing to break the deal on their end. This sets up a crazy situation where the U.S. may end up sanctioning European businesses for doing deals in Iran that occurred in compliance with an agreement the U.S. spearheaded just a few years ago. Russia and China also fully support the deal and could actively work with Tehran to thwart negative impacts from an onslaught of looming U.S. sanctions.

Is Iran a bad actor in the Middle East? Absolutely, no news there. Has the magnitude of their reach increased since 2015? Yes, it has. But that ship has sailed. If the White House wants to deal with Iran’s extra-territorial activities or ballistic missile programs than it can make a case for doing so without ripping up the nuclear deal unilaterally and injecting massive quantities of uncertainty into a region that is already far from stable. 

Now that the U.S. has acted, if Iran moves to immediately reconstitute their nuclear program, other increasingly powerful players in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are sure to follow with their own spinning up their own nuclear programs. In fact, moving toward a mutually assured destruction model by acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities may be invited at this point as the word of the United States is now deeply in question even when it comes to its very own non-proliferation deals. In other words, for Saudi Arabia, which is also increasingly assertive in the region, just getting its own nukes and not having to depend on the U.S. to contain Iran is likely a welcome prospect at this point.

Beyond how this decision impacts the North Korean nuclear weapons issue and the security situation in the Middle East in the longer-term, we now have to wait to see what shorter-term actions will occur as a result. Israel seems to be readying for a full-on conflict with Iran and their proxies in the region now. The Pentagon is also bracing for possible blowback against its forces based in the area, and especially in Syria and Iraq.

So yeah, we get it, Iran is a bad actor who is increasingly pushing their interests abroad in many ways that are in direct conflict with U.S. interests. And Tehran would say the exact same about Washington. And yes, the Iranian nuclear deal is far from perfect and the Obama administration failed miserably when it came to limiting Iran’s ability to act nefariously in the region. But the agreement is working within its limited scope and Iran has abided by it as it said it would. It’s very unfortunate that Iran will go down in history as being more trustworthy than the United States when it came to such an important deal. This will damage U.S. credibility in other ways outside the North Korean negotiations as well.

The cold hard truth is that Iran is far less of a threat to the United States than North Korea, especially considering its current largely dormant nuclear status. And what’s most important is that the single element that is needed in order to have any possibility of reaching some sort of a deal with North Korea is trust that such an agreement will be executed as promised. 

Vice President Pence and NSA John Bolton watch on as President Trump announces that the U.S. is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. This was likely a highlight of Bolton career as he has been the most vocal hawk when it comes to Iran over the last decade and a half. , AP

Considering trust between Washington and Pyongyang is already a very scarce commodity, literally showing the North Koreans that America’s word means nothing and its willingness to stick to its agreements can drastically morph due to a change in direction of political winds gives the Kim regime every reason to give up far less than it would otherwise, and especially less than what the Trump administration is asking of them. 

In other words, if the idea of Kim just handing over his nuclear arsenal and destroying his nuclear and missile programs was far-fetched on May 7th, 2018, it is had turned into all but a wide-eyed fantasy following Trump’s announcement the next day. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com