On April 24, French President Emmanuel Macron walked into the Oval Office with one overriding mission: persuade President Trump not to ditch the Iran nuclear deal. It looks as if he failed. Macron later told reporters that Trump repeated his long-standing view that the nuclear agreement — formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — is “the worst deal ever, it’s a nightmare, it was a catastrophe.” According to Macron, Trump indicated that he would probably fulfill his campaign pledge to scrap the deal when U.S. sanctions relief is due to be renewed May 12. This impression has only been strengthened since.
As troubling as that is, something else Macron said about Trump is even more ominous. “His experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal,” Macron recounted. “That’s a strategy of increasing tension.” At a critical juncture for U.S. policy, this suggests that Trump is operating under deeply flawed assumptions about both North Korea and Iran.
What Trump seems to have internalized from North Korea is that threats and “maximum pressure” can force his opponents to negotiate away their nuclear programs on American terms. Yet U.S. pressure is probably not the primary driver of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s willingness to bargain, nor is there much reason to believe that Pyongyang is ready to completely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Trump’s faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations could doom prospects for peacefully deescalating one nuclear standoff — and applying these misguided lessons to Iran could manufacture yet another.
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Trump appears to think that he will go to his summit with Kim, scheduled for late May or early June, and be handed the keys to the country’s nuclear kingdom. His campaign of economic sanctions, “fire and fury” threats and “Little Rocket Man” taunts and tweets worked, the White House logic goes; North Korea is now facing deep economic and military vulnerability and is willing to trade its nuclear weapons — its “treasured sword of justice ” — for sanctions relief and assurances that the United States won’t attack the country.
But there is no evidence that North Korea feels weak, economically or otherwise. And there is no indication that Kim is willing to surrender his nuclear arsenal for economic benefits, security guarantees or any other incentive Trump might offer.
After a purported thermonuclear test in September and his third intercontinental ballistic missile test in November, Kim said that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent force was “complete” and that the nation could shift to priorities like economic development. Kim’s declaration before his recent summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the North would end nuclear testing should be seen for what it is: a pledge by a country that no longer thinks it needs to test its nuclear weapons. And although Trump hailed North Korea’s announcement that it would close the testing site used in September, the country has others.
So while Trump believes that Kim is coming to him out of weakness, Kim almost certainly believes he initiated his successful “charm offensive” out of strength. Trump thinks he can walk away with Kim’s nuclear weapons, while Kim thinks he can walk away having been accepted as a de facto nuclear power by the president of the United States. Only one can be right.
The prospect of North Korea dismantling its atomic arsenal anytime soon remains slim, the recent inter-Korean summit in the demilitarized zone notwithstanding. Yes, the joint statement by Kim and Moon calls for a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War and for a nuclear-free peninsula “through complete denuclearization.” But we have seen these kinds of statements before, almost verbatim. And this one may not mean what Trump thinks it means. It allows Seoul to tell Washington that Pyongyang has agreed to reaffirm the goal of “complete” denuclearization. But it also allows the North to have an even broader, more literal reading: universal nuclear disarmament, including by the United States.
Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, continues to call for a “Libya model” of denuclearization for North Korea, where the United States would take custody of the weapons. For Kim, though, Libya illustrates why giving up nuclear weapons is folly. Moammar Gaddafi agreed to surrender his nuclear program in 2003, and the United States and its allies toppled his regime less than a decade later. Kim is unlikely to make the same mistake — and unlike Gaddafi’s, Kim’s weapons already work. Libya and Trump’s rhetoric on Iran reinforce a critical lesson for North Korea: Nuclear weapons offer a lifetime insurance policy, while security assurances can have expiration dates.
There is a chance for meaningful diplomatic progress on North Korea. A more realistic possibility is a verifiable and permanent end to nuclear testing, a reduction in nuclear and missile capabilities over time, and a process that deescalates tensions on the peninsula. But if Trump walks into his meeting with Kim thinking North Korea will cave, diplomacy could quickly fail, putting both countries back on the path to war. This outcome may not be so bad for Bolton — who has said that one value of the summit is to “foreshorten” diplomacy so the United States can move on to other options. But it would be catastrophic for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of other people.
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Trump’s flawed assumptions are equally dangerous with Iran. Although the 2015 agreement puts long-term constraints on Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs and imposes the most stringent inspections regime ever negotiated, Trump thinks the deal is “disastrously flawed.” Every U.S. official has testified that Iran is in compliance, but Trump simply believes that the deal does not go far enough in curbing Iran’s broader ambitions. After a European blitz to try to persuade Trump to remain in the agreement, White House officials reveled in a recent speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iranian efforts to design a nuclear warhead through 2003. It contained no hard evidence of ongoing violations, but it was full of theatrics, providing cover for Trump to leave the accord.
If Trump exits the Iran deal believing he can impose much tougher terms on Tehran, he is deluding himself. In the absence of clear Iranian violations of the nuclear accord, whatever economic pressure the United States can bring against Iran will be far less than it was before the deal. The European Union is likely to block companies from complying with U.S. sanctions, provide financial incentives for continued business with Iran, and threaten trade retaliation against Washington if the administration penalizes European companies. Russia, another party to the deal, will be in no mood to play ball, either. The final party to the agreement, China, will search for workarounds, as will other large Asian customers for Iranian oil. So the sanctions regime will be leakier than it was before the deal. And it defies the laws of diplomatic physics to think it is possible to produce 120 percent of the current constraints on Iran’s nuclear program with less than 100 percent of the leverage.
There are also good reasons to believe that increased pressure aimed at getting Iran to fold will backfire. There is little incentive for Tehran to begin negotiations on a deal Trump would see as better: Iranian leaders increasingly feel that the existing arrangement is not living up to their economic expectations because of the Trump administration’s failure to implement the U.S. side of the bargain in good faith. Iranian domestic politics make it inconceivable that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would sign a new accord with Trump on worse terms. The Islamic republic was willing to absorb hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage and hundreds of thousands of casualties during the Iran-Iraq War — and it still took the Iranians eight bloody years to settle for a tie. The regime defines its identity in terms of “resistance” to the West and has invested huge amounts of domestic legitimacy in defending its “nuclear rights.” It is not about to capitulate to a total dismantlement of its nuclear program. That was true in 2015, when President Barack Obama agreed to the deal, and it remains true today.
Instead, Iran is likely to respond to Trump scrapping the deal by at least initially playing the victim, seeking to drive wedges between the United States and the international community. At some point, it will likely also incrementally expand aspects of its nuclear program — increasing research and development, reinstalling centrifuges, curtailing inspections — to show that it is resisting Washington and to generate counter-leverage, hoping U.S. allies infuriated by Trump’s rash actions look the other way. And the more sanctions bite, the less politically sustainable the agreement would become in Tehran.
So Trump’s attempt to replicate what he sees as a successful North Korea-style pressure campaign against Iran could fail, producing this instead: less-effective international efforts to contain Iran, an expanding Iranian nuclear program and no obvious diplomatic path for resolving this wholly manufactured crisis. A “strategy of increasing tension” is likely to produce just that: increasing tension, kicking off a spiral of pressure, retaliation and military threats.
With escalating tensions between U.S. allies and Iran in Syria and in Yemen, and with thousands of American troops operating in close proximity to Iranian forces and proxies in Iraq, Syria and the Persian Gulf, it is all too easy to imagine the spark of a renewed nuclear crisis culminating in war in the Middle East.
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It doesn’t have to be this way.
Trump is drawing the wrong lessons from North Korea and applying them to Iran. But there are lessons from the Iran deal that should inform policy toward both countries. The deal shows that deescalating a nuclear crisis requires a sustained, deliberate, carefully planned, multilateral process that builds toward a comprehensive agreement through direct engagement and confidence-building measures. Success requires a policy that accounts for all the motivations adversarial states have for seeking nuclear weapons capabilities, and the need to provide reciprocal economic and security assurances in exchange for verifiable steps to roll back those programs.
That was the road pursued in the lead-up to the Iran deal, and it’s a foundation that Trump could still build upon to address remaining concerns about Iran. A similar path is conceivable with North Korea, as the recent inter-Korean talks suggest: slowly paving the way to normalization and global integration in exchange for verifiable reductions in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
But if Trump instead approaches both countries through his maximalist “Art of the Deal” mentality, expecting that bluster and threats will lead to complete capitulation by the other party, he will be sorely disappointed. And worse: He will accelerate not one but two nuclear crises — and close off peaceful, diplomatic avenues for resolving either of them.