Shadow Government

‘Fixing’ the Iran Nuke Deal Ahead of North Korea Talks Is a Terrible Idea

The road to Pyongyang does not pass through Tehran.

Hwasong-15 ballistic missiles on display during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Feb. 8. (KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
Hwasong-15 ballistic missiles on display during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Feb. 8. (KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the prospect of U.S. President Donald Trump meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. These include the facts that Trump agreed to the meeting impulsively and without high-level U.S. government consideration or consultations with allies, the administration has little high-level expertise on East Asia and has no ambassador in South Korea, the president has shown little willingness or ability to master the details of proliferation issues, and the two leaders are highly unlikely to find common ground on core issues such as Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the U.S. military presence in the South. Trump and some of his advisors — including Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo — now talk about the meeting as if it is already a major U.S. breakthrough, when in fact a meeting with Kim is less likely to lead to a nuclear breakthrough than to an empty-handed and embarrassed U.S. president having to decide what to do when Pyongyang refuses U.S. demands and resumes its nuclear tests.

As if the risk of a failed summit is not great enough, it now looks as if Trump and some of his supporters see the upcoming North Korea summit as a further reason to scrap — or try to amend — the Iran nuclear deal. Their logic seems to be that demonstrating a tougher approach on Iran will show Kim that Trump means business and that the terms of any possible deal with North Korea will have to be more demanding than those of the deal that the United States and its partners struck with Tehran. By “fixing” the Iran nuclear deal according to Trump’s conditions — which would mean including constraints on Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities, permitting even more intrusive inspections, and making the limits on uranium enrichment last forever instead of 10 to 15 years — Trump would be demonstrating to Kim that he must accept similar constraints or suffer the consequences of failing to do so.

The problem with this sort of linkage — nice as it may sound — is that it has virtually no chance of working. The Iran deal is highly unlikely to be modified in the way Trump wants and even if it somehow were, that wouldn’t lead to a similar agreement with North Korea. In fact, the most likely result of trying to get a nuclear deal with North Korea by demanding changes to the existing one with Iran is not two effective nuclear deals but zero, along with a situation in which U.S. options shrink to either acquiescence or military intervention.

The first flaw in the logic of linkage is that the significantly better deal Trump is demanding from Iran is highly unlikely to be achieved. True, talks with Washington’s European partners — desperate to keep the United States in the deal, as I discovered in a trip to Europe last week — offer some prospect for modest steps to satisfy Trump’s concerns. These may include new European sanctions on Iranian ballistic missile tests, pledges to support more rigorous inspections, and a declaration of readiness to try to negotiate an eventual follow-on agreement to address the issue of sunset clauses. But there is no chance that Europe — let alone Russia, China, or for that matter Iran — will agree to the far more fundamental changes the administration is demanding. Trump may well claim these modest European pledges as a result of his negotiating prowess and stay in the deal in May, when the next round of U.S. sanctions waivers is required, but it is hard to see how that would make much of a difference when he talks to a North Korean dictator already in possession of a nuclear arsenal.

Trump may well reject the European offer, but tearing up the Iran deal to demonstrate toughness does not seem very conducive for progress with North Korea either. Unilaterally killing the Iran deal would not only signal to Kim that he cannot count on any agreement with the international community — even one endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council and certified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency — but it would in effect be telling Pyongyang that an Iran-like compromise is not good enough for Trump. Think about that: The current Iran nuclear deal requires intrusive inspections throughout the country permanently; the elimination of plutonium production and reprocessing for at least 15 years; strict limits on the amount and quality of enriched uranium for 15 years; and a permanent ban on any efforts to seek, acquire, or work on nuclear weapons, all while most U.S. economic sanctions remain in place. Why would Trump want to convey a message to Kim that such a deal is simply not good enough? And that to get a deal Pyongyang must also change its regional behavior, halt its ballistic missile program, accept continued U.S. economic sanctions, and allow U.N. inspectors access to North Korean military bases and Kim family residences? Does anybody calling for Trump to kill the Iran nuclear deal really imagine Kim going for this? Or that he would consider doing so even if Iran somehow agreed to all of Trump’s demands?

Proponents of fixing the Iran deal in order to send a message to Pyongyang should keep in mind that as hard as it was to get Iran to accept any nuclear accord, U.S. leverage with North Korea is actually vastly more limited. Whereas the military option to set back Iran’s program carries enormous risks and downsides, it is at least credible as a short-term fix and may have contributed to Tehran’s calculus in accepting an agreement. With North Korea, on the other hand, preemptive strikes would almost certainly lead to tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties — and that is even if Pyongyang refrained from using its nuclear weapons. The ability to hold hostage the more than 25 million people of greater Seoul — only some 35 miles from the North Korean border — as well as the more than 200,000 Americans living within range of North Korean artillery and missiles — gives Kim leverage at the bargaining table of a sort Iranian leaders could only dream of.

And Iranian leaders, in turn, have to take Iranian public opinion into account in a way that Kim does not. Whereas repeated Iranian elections — as well as the widespread protests earlier this year — remind Tehran of the public’s desire for sanctions relief and to integrate with the world, Kim has no such concerns. His closed, totalitarian state is in that sense more analogous to Iraq under Saddam Hussein than to today’s Iran. And Hussein, remember, was willing to live with crippling sanctions against his people for years and to face down an invasion by 500,000 U.S. troops — an earlier version of Trump’s “maximum pressure” — rather than give up a nuclear program that turned out to be mostly fictional anyway.

Any sort of nuclear agreement with North Korea is a longshot — especially a deal meant to emerge from an ill-prepared meeting between two unpredictable heads of government who have spent the past year exchanging personal insults and threats. The Kim regime has for decades seen nuclear weapons as the key to its survival and has been willing to endure severe international isolation, even when it meant starvation for much of the country’s population. There is no reason to think — and an agreement to meet Trump certainly does not suggest — that any of this has changed or that the regime is somehow on the brink of collapse.

It is possible that faced with tighter international sanctions for which the Trump administration deserves credit, Kim might accept constraints on his nuclear and missile programs in exchange for significant economic incentives and security guarantees. In the absence of better options, such an arrangement should be considered in close consultation with regional allies. But the idea that we can get a deal with North Korea by calling for fundamental changes in the Iran deal — or worse, by tearing it up — is a dangerous fantasy. Its most likely result would be the death of the effective deal already in place while making it less likely that the United States gets the additional one it wants.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

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