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Trump's Rash Words Could 'Destroy' Not Only North Korea but Also a Blueprint for a Peaceful Detente

Trump threatens longstanding alliances abroad by suggesting, unilaterally, the destruction of North Korea and the Iran Nuclear Deal, analysts warn.
President Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

President Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

Donald Trump suggested in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that the United States may have to "totally destroy North Korea." But it doesn't have to be so, U.S. allies and arms analysts alike suggest. In fact, literally no other international actor has indicated support for an act of warfare in North Korea—still, Trump indicated Tuesday that, as on many other fronts, he's willing to go it alone.

There is a way forward in North Korea that doesn't involve carnage—a blueprint in recent memory for a detente where diplomacy has broken down entirely, as it has with Pyongyang. That blueprint is the Iran Nuclear Deal negotiated under the last administration.

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview with German magazine Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the Iran deal offers a model for handling North Korea.

In that deal, the P5+1 nations—U.S., China, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Germany—negotiated with Iranian counterparts over the course of several years. Those efforts culminated in 2015, with a deal that lifted sanctions in exchange for the easing of restrictions on Tehran's nuclear program.

It is this sort of diplomacy—one that iterates itself over time and in concert with other key actors in global affairs—that Merkel said her administration would happily engage.

But the Trump White House may soon destroy the Iran deal too. Although it may be without the support of its allies, who have expressed willingness to part ways with the U.S. over the Iran deal's implementation in order to prevent an even more restive Middle East and, indeed, world.

The administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who expressed resounding praise for Trump's incendiary rhetoric Tuesday—has pressured Washington to undo the deal since its inception, arguing that it should have included recognition of Israel and would do little to prevent a regional arms race. Netanyahu's administration and its supporters have advised the Trump White House to abandon the Iran Nuclear Deal. That advice runs counter to many non-proliferation experts, 80 of whom issued a joint statement last week in support of the Iran deal, which they called "effective and verifiable."

Leading non-proliferation analysts warn against the rhetoric aimed at destroying the deal without a feasible replacement.

"I continue to be baffled by those who argue for undoing the JCPOA [formal name for the Iran nuclear deal] who have no alternative to replace it," says Jeffrey Fields, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California and author of State Behavior and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Regime. "I agree with President [Barack] Obama—if you have an alternative, let's hear it. But just being against the agreement is not an alternative, but political rhetoric for domestic consumption. The George W. Bush administration had eight years to come up with something better. While it shunned direct negotiations with Iran, Tehran continued to make progress on its uranium enrichment capability, making the task of the Obama administration that much more difficult. But this also illustrates that doing nothing doesn't just maintain the status quo, it allows a country to process technically—whether that country is North Korea or Iran."

At his U.N. General Assembly address Tuesday, Trump said Tehran continues to build missiles and that the deal amounts to a "cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program." That is a narrative—fake news, according to the very people monitoring the program—that Trump continues to push; the International Atomic Energy Agency, the autonomous monitoring organization reporting to the U.N., showed last month that there is both no evidence for Trump's claims and no empirical reason to doubt Tehran's compliance with the deal.

"There is no way to resolve the North Korean crisis other than through negotiations, and the only way talks would work is for both sides to be able to benefit from it."

And perhaps as an extension of Trump's unfounded claims of Tehran's non-compliance with the nuclear deal, his view of the entirety of U.S.-Iran relations is firmly grounded in fancy, analysts say.

"The Trump administration mistakenly believes that Iran should not have any nuclear technology—peaceful or military—and that, with additional sanctions pressure, Iran can be persuaded to agree to a 'better deal' from the U.S. perspective, including forcing Iran to agree to change its behavior on non-nuclear issues, such as its role in supporting proxy forces in key conflicts in the region," says Daryl G. Kimball, director of the Washington-based advocacy group Arms Control Association, which issued the joint statement of 80 non-proliferation experts last week. "Such an approach is a fantasy."

"Abandoning the deal without clear evidence of an unresolved material breach by Iran that is corroborated by the other [P5+1] partners runs the risk that Tehran would resume some of its nuclear activities, such as enriching uranium to higher levels or increasing the number of operating centrifuges," Kimball says. "These steps would decrease the time it would take for Iran to obtain enough nuclear material for a nuclear warhead."

Analysts agree with Merkel that, amid the pounding of war drums at the Trump White House, abandoning a working deal on non-proliferation would undermine all non-violent attempts at detente in Pyongyang.

"I believe Chancellor Merkel is absolutely right. There is no way to resolve the North Korean crisis other than through negotiations, and the only way talks would work is for both sides to be able to benefit from it," says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst at International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies international conflict resolution and prevention.

Angela Merkel speaks on September 19th, 2017, in Schwerin, Germany.

Angela Merkel speaks on September 19th, 2017, in Schwerin, Germany.

Vaez cautions that undoing the Iran deal will leave Washington without much bargaining power in any world conflict. "It is a chimera for the Trump administration to believe that it can build a stronger pact [with Iran or North Korea] on the ruins of the JCPOA."

Vaez says that, in destroying Iran's blueprint for a way forward in North Korea, Trump ignores the will of the vast majority of international actors. "Sacrificing a nuclear deal that is working and the rest of the world is highly satisfied with is a new height for irrational foreign policy," he adds.

French President Francois Macron tried on Monday to persuade Trump not to abandon the Iran deal—but judging by Trump's speech at the U.N., those efforts were for naught. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Monday that Paris and other P5+1 nations would proceed with the deal, even if Trump declines to certify to Congress next month that Tehran is in compliance with the deal. Destroying the Iran deal, it seems, could not only stand to destroy the faith necessary for a working agreement on Pyongyang; it could also destroy Washington's longstanding alliances abroad.

The Iran deal offers an example of "smart diplomacy" in the face of crisis, the Arms Control Association's Kimball says, adding that there are several important differences between Pyongyang and Tehran, despite both belonging to former President George W. Bush's so-called Axis of Evil.

"The most significant difference being that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade and conducted six nuclear test explosions," he says, "whereas Iran has not and was stopped short of a nuclear weapons capability, and that North Korea does not depend on international trade in the same way that Iran does and is therefore not nearly as vulnerable to international sanctions and pressure as Iran was."

Trump's rhetoric at the U.N., however, could stand to drive more sober minds in Tehran to extremes, Vaez warns. "Demonizing Iran would not usher in more moderate Iranian policies. Threats will force Tehran to double down on its missile program and regional policies," he says.

Not only does the Trump administration stand to undo a model for good, the state of global security could soon become worse than ever.