If, as he has clearly signaled, President Donald Trump chooses in the coming months to hold Iran in noncompliance of the nuclear accord, the impact will be felt in Tehran and in the already volatile Middle East.
But the more serious casualty could be both more widespread and more distant—thousands of miles away, on the Korean peninsula. And the Trump administration needs to begin connecting the dots now.
The United States has few options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge, and no good ones. A preemptive strike risks an unspeakable catastrophe. Sanctions have not worked, and tightening them is no more likely to. Diplomatic talks will be difficult for the United States because an agreement would involve a compromise that would allow North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, if the goal is to prevent Pyongyang from developing an accurate nuclear-tipped ICBM, then negotiating with Pyongyang may well be the only way to try to defuse a looming crisis.
Even under current conditions, such talks would be fraught, the odds tilted against success. But if the U.S. thrusts the nuclear deal with Iran aside—and uses contrived evidence to do so—the message to North Korea and others will be that America’s word is disposable and the U.S. cannot be trusted to honor its commitments. This would deal a possibly fatal blow to any chance of a diplomatic effort to, if not halt or reverse, at a minimum slow down North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Indeed, walking away from the Iran deal, or contriving circumstances that force Iran to do so, will not only open up a now dormant nuclear crisis with Tehran; it will also close down perhaps the only option that might prevent a far more dangerous crisis with North Korea.
North Korea already harbors heightened suspicion and mistrust of Washington’s motives, fearing that the U.S.’s real objective is removal of the Kim regime and reunification of the Korean peninsula under South Korean leadership. U.S. abandonment, without just cause, of the Iran deal would both validate and exacerbate those beliefs; to Pyongyang, the lesson would be that Washington saw diplomacy merely as a prelude to efforts to isolate, pressure and seek to remove the Iranian regime. Why would Kim Jung-un even begin negotiations if he is convinced that Washington would then look for excuses to unravel an agreement, should one be reached?
The message from Washington, of course, would not be heard in Pyongyang alone. The administration’s too-clever-by-half strategy of messing around with the Iranian nuclear accord—doing just enough to tempt Tehran to walk away from the deal after Trump publicly acknowledged that his goal was to undo it—almost certainly would undermine its credibility with nations whose cooperation it desperately needs to deal with North Korean nuclear challenge. The recent unanimous UN Security Council Resolution imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea demonstrates two things: first, that a unilateral U.S. approach is impracticable, and second, that China and Russia can be useful partners in pressing Pyongyang on its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. If anything, the Trump administration is banking too heavily on Beijing to somehow solve the problem on our behalf.
But consider China’s reaction should the U.S. treat the nuclear agreement with Iran in a slapdash, dismissive manner. Beijing might well be angered given its interests in buying Iran’s oil and investing in its infrastructure. But it would be positively alarmed at the implications for North Korea, which presents China with a major security headache on its doorstep. China long has maintained that diplomacy with Pyongyang is the only viable answer to the North Korean nuclear problem, and it believes in the six-party format, which, not entirely unlike the seven-party format of the Iran negotiations, includes both China and the U.S. The precedent of the U.S. effectively dismissing an accord negotiated by a team of countries and ratified by the UN Security Council would give China considerable pause, raise serious questions in its mind about whether the U.S. could be trusted not to act similarly with North Korea, and make it virtually impossible for Beijing to vouch for Washington’s good faith vis-à-vis Pyongyang.
Allies also might lose faith. Throughout the long-simmering nuclear crisis with North Korea, the Bush and Obama administrations managed to preserve solidarity with South Korea and Japan. Going forward, any sustainable solution to this crisis will require implementation of a joint U.S.-South Korea strategy backed by Japan. Moon Jae-Inn, South Korea’s newly-elected president, is a strong proponent of engagement with the North, and both Seoul and Tokyo are desperate to contain the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that both would be apoplectic if, by repudiating the nuclear accord with Iran, the U.S. effectively cut off the path to a diplomatic solution on the peninsula.
The odds against a negotiated agreement with North Korea are preternaturally long, but it would be the height of irresponsibility not to test its possibility. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently offered the welcome suggestion that the U.S. is open to diplomacy, and the welcome reassurance to Pyongyang that it is not intent on regime change. Surely, both he and others in the administration—Generals James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly in particular, all of whom reportedly lobbied for Trump to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord the last time around—understand how hollow those words will ring if, the next time certification is in play, they fail to persuade the president. The least one can hope is that they will see the linkage, because it’s a pretty good bet that this president won’t. And it’s just as good a bet that, by failing to peek just around the corner, he would be creating the prospect of a two-front nuclear crisis that America and the world can ill afford.