Trump's Iran decision could shake up North Korea stand-off

President Trump’s upcoming decision on whether to toss out the landmark nuclear deal with Iran could have ripple effects half-a-world away.

Experts on both sides of the political spectrum say that whatever happens with Iran will have effects on North Korea and vice versa.

Opponents of the Iranian nuclear deal argue that Iran is watching North Korea’s belligerence to see what they might be able to get away with. Supporters of the deal, meanwhile, say scrapping it would send a signal to Pyongyang that the United States cannot be trusted in any potential future negotiations.

“The Iran nuclear deal set an important precedent constraining a hostile proliferator's nuclear capabilities,” Robert Litwick, director of international security studies at the Wilson Center, said in an email. “Ironically, this ‘worst deal’ ever negotiated, according to President Trump, offers a useful model that could be applied to North Korea's much more mature nuclear program through a concerted diplomatic push, enlisting China, to constrain the North's capabilities.”

Trump faces an Oct. 15 deadline to tell Congress whether Iran remains in compliance with the 2015 deal that provided Tehran with billions of dollars of sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. 

If Trump chooses not the recertify Iran’s compliance, Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions.

Trump has certified Iran’s compliance with the deal both times the congressionally mandated deadline to do so has happened during his presidency. But he’s signaled in recent days that won’t be the case for the third time.

In his first speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, Trump called the deal an “embarrassment to the United States,” adding “I don’t think you have heard the last of it.”

Trump proceeded to tell reporters Wednesday that he’s made a decision on the nuclear deal, but refused to say what it is. 

“I'll let you know what the decision is,” he said.

Trump’s U.N. speech also appeared to link Iran to North Korea. Immediately after belittling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a suicidal “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” the country if necessary, Trump turned his attention to “another reckless regime.”

“It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior. We face this decision not only in North Korea. It is far past time for the nations of the world to confront another reckless regime, one that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing death to America, destruction to Israel and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room,” he said.

Asked this week about the relationship between North Korea and Iran, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, declined to discuss specifics. But he said that any time the United States acts in one part of the world, the rest of the world is watching.

“Everything we do down to the smallest tactical level in today’s world delivers a strategic message to not just the United States and our citizens but our allies and our adversaries,” Hyten said at an event at the Hudson Institute. “And yes, what we decide to do with and around North Korea will have an effect on everybody that we deal. So we have to consider that as well. But Iran is a concern. We watch that every day, and we need to be prepared for that, and we will be.”

Hyten also said Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, though he expressed concerns about missile tests not covered under the deal. 

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDecline in US travel spurs business push for visitors Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Mattis: North Korea situation 'sobering' MORE also said this week that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the accord. 

With no evidence Iran is cheating on the deal, proponents say pulling out will show North Korea that Trump cannot be trusted at the negotiating table.

“To me, the best answer is a diplomatic solution,” Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, said of the North Korea crisis. “There are really no good military options. Sanctions aren’t working. Diplomacy is our last best hope, but why would North Korea put any stock in that if at same time we’re tearing up the Iran deal?” 

Collina argued that the United States should learn from its past failed attempts at agreements with North Korea and keep the Iran deal. 

The 1994 Agreed Framework got North Korea to freeze its plutonium production for a time, but eventually fell apart during the George W. Bush administration after U.S. intelligence discovered North Korea was secretly pursuing technology for a uranium enrichment program. Both sides blamed the other for violating the deal’s terms. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Collina drew parallels between the Bush administration’s skepticism of the North Korea deal with the Trump administration’s of the Iran deal. In both cases, he argued, the issues could be solved by making additional agreements, instead of scrapping the original one.

“If both sides maintained the deal, we would not be facing the situation we have with North Korea today,” he said. “The lesson is, if you have a deal and you throw it away, five to 10 years from now, we will be where we are with North Korea.” 

James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and member of the Trump transition team, said North Korea used a “rope-a-dope” strategy to get where it is today by entering into agreements to get concessions from the United States and then violating the deals years later. 

The extent of cooperation between Iran and North Korea on their nuclear and missile programs is debatable, he said. But Iran has learned by watching North Korea’s success, he added. 

“I do think over the years there has been a kind of lesson learning where Iran is mimicking the North Korea strategy, which is basically rope-a-dope,” he said. 

The argument that North Korea will be less likely to deal with the United States if Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal is “ridiculous,” Carafano said. 

“That’s an arms control argument that has nothing to do with the reality of North Korean and Iranian behavior,” he said. “North Korea never trusted us. They’ve already violated deals with us eight times.”

“The regimes are so paranoid and know their grip on power is so tenuous, they believe that nuclear weapons are their ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Carafano said.