Iran and North Korea: The Unfulfilled Promise of the Nuclear Agreement

As Donald Trump increases the pressure on the throat of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran, more than the nuclear agreement is at risk of being lost. Trita Parsi, an Iran expert who was consulted by the Obama administration during the negotiations, has identified two other potential offspring of the agreement: it could soften the enmity between America and Iran and open the possibility of important cooperation, and the successful diplomacy between the bitterest of enemies could serve as a blueprint for the U.S. in future conflicts with seemingly ossified enemies. Both of these opportunities are also in danger of being lost.

There is a jagged contradiction in Trump’s foreign policy with Israel and Iran. He has been quite clear that he regards Israel as an unconditional ally and Iran as an unredeemable enemy. And yet, his policy does not always reflect his promise.

Two examples stand out. Israel has always backed al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s attempt to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Sima Shine, who is in charge of Iran in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, says that when weighing whether or not to remove Assad from power, one should weigh in the impact his removal would have on Iran. "The ‘devil we know’ is worse than the devil we don’t," she said, adding that the Israeli security community believes that keeping Assad in power is worse than removing him. Shine said that, since Israel’s main enemy is Iran, Israel should examine events in Syria from the perspective of how they affect Iran: "If Bashar remains in power, that would be a huge achievement for Iran."

In September 2013, Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the US said, "We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran." Oren told the Jerusalem Post that "This was the case . . . even if the other ‘bad guys’ were affiliated with al-Qaeda." Nearly a year later, in June 2014, Oren would repeat Israel’s position of preferring the Islamic State and al-Nusra over Assad: "From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail." A year and a half later, Defense Minister Moshe Yalon would essentially reiterated this firm Israeli preference as would Israeli intelligence Chief, Major General Herzi Halevy still half a year later when he explicitly said that Israel does not want to see the war in Syria end with the defeat of ISIS.

And yet, in July, Trump laid to rest the covert CIA program that had been arming and training the optimistically named "moderate Syrian rebels". The program was created by the Obama administration in 2013 to support regime change in Syria. Pulling the plug on the program shows a pulling away from regime change. The Washington Post quotes officials as saying that "The shuttering of the program is . . . an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited . . . desire to remove Assad from power." Though Israel is the ally and Iran the enemy, Trump’s policy shift leaves Iran’s ally in power in Syria and the Israelis stymied in their desire to remove him and Iran’s influence in the region.

Perhaps even more frustrating for Israel is the ceasefire agreement negotiated by the US and Russia for southwestern Syria. The agreement creates safe zones along Syria’s border with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously opposes the ceasefire "because it perpetuates the Iranian presence" in Syria. Senior Israeli officials say that, though Netanyahu forcefully made his concerns about proxy Iranian influence through Hezbollah known, "the Americans and Russians had ignored Israel’s positions almost completely."

It is now known that Israel was present at a series of secret talks regarding the ceasefire. At those talks, the Israelis made it clear that, while the US and Russia see the safe zones as a way of stabilizing Syria and focusing on the Islamic State, they see them as stabilizing a Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria. But when the Israelis received the draft of the agreement, they were "shocked to discover that both the letter and spirit of the document contradicted virtually all the positions Israel had presented to the Americans and Russians." As a result, Netanyahu publicly stated on July 16 that he opposes the ceasefire because it perpetuates Iran’s presence in Syria.

So, Trump says that Israel is the ally and Iran the enemy, but his policy shifts leave Iran’s ally, Assad, in power in Damascus and Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, a presence on the Syrian border with Israel.

The Israelis have always worried that the United States could abandon Israel and Israel’s interests at a moment in history when improving relations with Iran better served US interests. But Washington’s other interactions with Iran strongly suggest that Israel has nothing to fear.

One logical resolution to the Israel/Iran contradiction is that Trump can maintain Iran’s allies in Syria because he intends to cut down Iran. What appears to betray Israel’s interests doesn’t really betray them because Iran’s proxies and allies have power only as long as Iran has power: they "can do no more than Caesar’s arm/ When Caesar’s head is off," as Shakespeare said.

And Washington’s actions with regard to Iran are entirely consistent with cutting of its head and banishing it back to isolation. The decapitation is being mercilessly delivered in three strokes: increased sanctions, tarring them as terrorists and destroying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement.

The first move that is consistent with pruning back and banishing Iran is the new round of sanctions against Iran announced by the Trump administration. The States claims the sanctions are the result of Iran’s ballistic missile program, but the JCPOA does not require Iran to terminate its ballistic missile program. Resolution 2231, approved in support of the JCPOA, “calls upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”. But, Iran’s missiles are defensive and are designed to carry a conventional payload: the missiles are not capable of being nuclear armed. And, even if they were, it has been consistently verified – and certified by the States – that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, so there are no nuclear weapons for the ballistic missiles to carry.

Also indicating that Trump has no intention of warming up relations with Iran but, rather, seeks to isolate them, is the State Department’s latest Country Report on Terrorism that identifies Iran as "the world’s foremost" state sponsor of terrorism: a talented trick for a country that is leading the fight against both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Along with sanctioning Iran and listing Iran as terrorists, further evidence of Trump’s intention to push Iran back into the cold storage of isolation and regional irrelevance is his publicly stated intent to shatter the JCPOA nuclear agreement itself. Talking about certifying Iran as being compliant with the JCPOA, Trump told the Wall Street Journal, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago." He went on to say that it is wrong to say Iran is in compliance with the agreement and that "They don’t comply." So much for the International Atomic Energy Agency who continues to certify that Iran is in full compliance with the agreement.

And, since the Rex Tillerson and the State Department continue to tell Trump that Iran is sticking to the agreement, Trump has gone around the State Department and struck a group of White House staffers to create the case for convicting Iran of noncompliance. "This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there," a source close to the White House said. A second source said that Trump "is resolved to not recertify [the] deal in 90 days." Trita Parsi says that that resolution by Trump will "set the stage for a military confrontation."

In addition to denying Iran certification of compliance, Trump seems to have at least two other strategies for letting the agreement die without being seen to be the one to pull the plug. The first involves the US asking for "radical enforcement" of the nuclear deal by demanding spot inspections of several Iranian non-nuclear military sites. Since the JCPOA only permits such spot inspections if there is evidence that those sites are being used for clandestine nuclear operations, Iran would surely rebuff such requests. No country that has been labeled an enemy of the States would allow the States unfettered access to all of its military sites. When Iran refuses, though, Trump will claim that Iran is refusing to abide by the agreement. The second involves so infuriating and frustrating the Iranians through American noncompliance that they eventually tire of filing formal complaints with the commission that investigates violations of the JCPOA and pull out of the agreement themselves.

So, despite the promise of improved relations and regional cooperation that the JCPOA at least tentatively held out, the promise is atrophying under the Trump administration.

And, that is not the only promise to be stillborn. The successful nuclear diplomacy with one of America’s bitterest enemies also held out the possibility of serving as a blueprint for nuclear diplomacy with another of America’s bitterest enemies: North Korea. But that hope was just a tease too.

The stated roadblocks to diplomacy with North Korea are very similar to the ones that were said of Iran prior to the Obama administration. Diplomacy doesn’t work, the claim goes, because the regime is irrational.

Both parts of this claim are false: nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has worked in the past, and, though Kim Jong-un’s regime has many faults, irrationality in the relevant sense is not one of them.

As Trump closes the window of opportunity on diplomacy and threatens North Korea "with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before," the Trump administration justifies the aggressive approach by shrugging off the possibility of negotiating with irrational people. But, it is not obvious that Kim Jong-un is irrational or suicidal enough to invite "power the likes of which the world has never seen before". According to Siegfried Hecker, the last American to inspect North Korea’s nuclear facilities, though "[s]ome like to depict Kim as being crazy. . . . He’s not crazy and he’s not suicidal. And he’s not even unpredictable."

Similarly, John Feffer, author of a book on Korea, agrees that Kim is not irrational; rather, the "No. 1 rational goal for Kim Jong-un is preservation of his own authority and the preservation of his system of government. He knows that any attack of South Korea or the United States would spell the end of North Korea as a country, and of course, by extension, the end of him and his regime. So pure self-preservation dictates that, no, North Korea is not going to engage in any kind of attack on a sovereign country."

William J. Perry, the former Secretary of Defense who negotiated for President Clinton with North Korea, says, "But they are not crazy, as some people believe. North Korea is a pariah state and nearly alone in the world, but there is logic to the actions of its leadership. Fundamental to that logic is an overriding commitment to keeping their regime in power, to sustain the Kim dynasty.

What is the leadership’s logic? Noam Chomsky argues, in his book Who Rules the World?, that North Korea’s pattern of behavior with regard to their nuclear weapons program follows "a kind of tit-for-tat policy.” In 1993, North Korea was poised to end missile and military technology transfers to the Middle East in return for Israeli recognition of North Korea, when the US blocked the agreement. North Korea responded by carrying out a "minor missile test," according to Chomsky. Tit-for-tat. A year later, honoring their agreement, North Korea had actually ceased production of nuclear weapons when George W. Bush threatened North Korea. North Korea responded by restarting its nuclear program. Tit-for-tat. A decade later, the logic remained the same. A 2005 agreement with the US saw North Korea, once again, stop its nuclear program, just to see Bush violate the same agreement. North Korea again restarted its nuclear weapons program. Most recently, North Korea has tested nuclear missiles in response to existentially threatening US-South Korean military exercises on its border that involve stealth bombers simulating nuclear bombing attacks on North Korea. These North Korean moves are not, as Chomsky says, irrational, nor are they, as Siegfried Hecker say, even unpredictable.

Just as the first part of the US claim – that North Korea’s decision makers are irrational – is false, so is the second part: that nuclear diplomacy hasn’t worked with North Korea. History shows that the opposite is true. Nuclear diplomacy has worked with North Korea. It is not the North Koreans, but the Americans, who have sabotaged the diplomatic agreements.

In 1994, the Framework Agreement was made between the two countries. North Korea honored the agreement: they stopped testing long-range missiles and they stopped making nuclear bombs. It was George W. Bush who broke the agreement by threatening North Korea, which the agreement prohibited, by lumping it in the “Axis of Evil” and including it in the 2002 nuclear posture review as a country on which America should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb. Small wonder North Korea restarted its nuclear weapons program. The US further violated the Framework Agreement by delivering only 15% of the fuel it promised North Korea. It was only then that North pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Bush administration also used an intelligence source’s report, which came nine months after the "Axis of Evil" speech, that North Korea was working on technology to enrich uranium to abandon the deal. The US never discussed the source’s report with North Korea or continued on the diplomacy track that was mostly working, but, instead, used it as an excuse to kill the deal. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton admitted that "this was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework." William Parry called the US decision to stop compliance with the Agreed Framework unwise. Even if the program did exist, it would have led to a bomb at a much slower rate, buying time. In response to the American decision, Parry says, "the North Koreans sent the inspectors home and announced their intention to reprocess." Though the States says North Korea admitted to the uranium enrichment program, North Korea has denied that it ever admitted that there was a program.

In 2005, North Korea agreed to end its nuclear weapons program and allow inspectors in exchange for an American assurance to stop threatening attacks, to move towards normalizing relations and to undertake the planning of a light water reactor that could be used to provide North Korea with fuel but not with nuclear weapons. According to Chomsky, in his book What We Say Goes, though, President Bush broke his promise on the light water reactor and launched economic warfare against North Korea. Again, it was the US and not North Korea who made a diplomatic solution impossible.

Though the Americans have not lived up to the potential of the JCPOA as a blueprint for negotiations, the North Korean’s have surely seen that unfulfilled promise as a blueprint of how America threatens nuclear powers after they honor agreements to limit their nuclear programs. Trump’s treatment of Iran must be making North Korea even more leery to trust to diplomacy with America yet again. And that, it seems, is not irrational.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.