“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” said Donald Trump at his first address to the UN General Assembly on September 19. Referring to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and his nuclear sabre-rattling, he fulminated that if “forced to defend itself or its allies”, the US “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”.
This marked an escalation in the war of words between the US president and the North Korean leadership and came some two weeks after North Korea’s sixth nuclear bomb test. This should not be dismissed as mere bluster. The words presidents use matter, because they can shape new political realities.
The “reckless regime” label that Trump also used to link North Korea and Iran in his speech is an ominous forerunner of wrongheaded US Iran policies to come. It blithely conflates two very different governments, and glosses over fundamental legal and technical differences in their respective nuclear programmes.
If the Trump administration is going to get its policies towards these two countries right, it needs to develop a better grasp of these distinctions, and fast.
It was in the early 2000s that North Korea became a “rogue state” by withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and expelling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Ensuing UN sanctions and several rounds of Six-Party Talks (between the US, Russia, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea) could not stop Pyongyang’s march to a nuclear weapon. Tests of missiles and eventually nuclear devices were the last straws.
By contrast, Iran never left the NPT regime, and in the end managed to resolve a diplomatic crisis over controversial nuclear facilities through complicated negotiations. The result was the historic nuclear deal of 2015 (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
As I write in my book on the Iranian nuclear crisis, this deal is a historic success of international diplomacy, and the first successful precedent for rewinding UN sanctions imposed over proliferation charges without resorting to military means or regime change. In particular, the achievement of an internationally verified rollback of nuclear capabilities is a rare moment in arms control history.
At its root, the Iran crisis was a clash of interpretations as to what the right to nuclear energy entails and what it doesn’t. The 12-year-long diplomatic odyssey that ensued established that joining the NPT does not mean negotiating away the right to have a nuclear programme. (Articles IV and V of the treaty make that very clear.) There is no parallel with the North Korean dispute – and this is the vital distinction Trump is ignoring.
Reiterating his belief that “the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”, Trump also told the UN that: “We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear programme.” (The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nodded approvingly.)
Such a rhetoric also wilfully ignores eight IAEA reports confirming that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement to limit its nuclear capabilities. And if Trump’s allusions to the illegitimacy of particular regimes get mixed up with criticisms of multilateral, highly specific agreements, the power of multilateral diplomacy will suffer in favour of unilateral arbitrariness.
The negotiations surrounding the Iran nuclear crisis succeeded precisely because they managed to compartmentalise concerns about Iranian regional policies and focus very specifically on the nature of its nuclear programme. Unless his administration is willing to offer “grand bargain” negotiations on broader US-Iran relations, it’s hard to imagine a better deal being struck.
Under the agreement, Iran has closed all paths to a nuclear weapon. Abrogating the JCPOA would not make the region (or Americans, for that matter) safer, as it would let Iran revert back to a pre-diplomacy status, unchecked by IAEA verification while military escalation once again looms on the horizon.
What’s more, the implications for the global non-proliferation regime would be serious. Against the backdrop of a hostile US administration, the other participants to the multilateral deal – the EU, Russia, and China – all need it to survive because it has averted the prospect of what could be a cataclysmic Middle Eastern war. North Korean leaders, meanwhile, would rightly conclude that NPT membership and multilateral diplomacy is indeed no guarantee of regime survival.
Trump’s reckless language on the Iran deal, in addition to new US sanctions on Iran, is already gradually undermining the JCPOA, and his administration is reportedly seeking ways to decertify Iranian compliance, despite the evidence to the contrary. If the US does indeed bring down the Iran agreement by eroding it from within, that would set a disastrous precedent for nuclear-related diplomacy – and deal a blow to the nuclear non-proliferation regime from which it might never recover.