An isolated “rogue regime” with a horrendous human rights record destabilises the region, supports terrorism and embarks on a dangerous nuclear programme. The world community bands together to impose crippling economic sanctions. The regime finally relents and agrees to halt its nuclear ambitions in exchange for foreign investment, trade and recognition.
If that sounds like the ideal scenario for corralling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, it is.
And if you are looking for a successful template somewhere in the world, yes, there is one: Iran, which in 2015 agreed to suspend its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The Iran nuclear agreement could have provided the road map for the US to strike a deal to end the conflict on the Korean peninsula, just before Donald Trump is set to meet Kim Jong-un in the first ever face-to-face summit between the leaders of America and North Korea
The trouble is that Trump, making good on a campaign pledge, just ripped up the road map, and now he’s driving blind, in the dark and seemingly without a compass, over the objections of America’s European allies as well as Russia and China. He has tossed out the only working model for what a North Korea deal might look like.
At the most basic level, Trump first wanted to abrogate the Iran deal because it was the top foreign policy achievement of his predecessor, and this president has shown, if nothing else, that he is determined to uproot and dismantle all things associated with Barack Obama. From health care to environmental regulations to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, if Obama backed it, it has to be bad. Thus, the Iran deal was not just flawed; it was “horrible”, “rotten” and “the worst deal in history”.
Second, the hawks who have now seized control of the American foreign policy establishment, backed by Israel’s pro-war Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have long hated the Iran deal because it mandated only a 10- to 15-year moratorium on Iran’s nuclear research and uranium enrichment.
According to this view, Iran was only biding its time and rebuilding its economy while waiting patiently before it achieves a nuclear breakout in the next decade.
Others, mostly on the conservative right, condemned the deal because it only dealt with Iran’s nuclear programme, ignoring questions about Tehran’s support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, its ballistic missiles, its meddling in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, and its near-pathological hostility toward Israel and the West (with “death to America” a refrain at every Iranian rally).
And finally, pro-war fringe figures such as John Bolton, the new national security adviser who has rarely seen a country he didn’t want to bomb, have one ultimate goal in mind – regime change. In this dystopian, Boltonesque world view, any deal with Iran is a bad deal because America’s long-term endgame should be toppling the mullahs by force; spare the talks and start revving up the B-52s.
Against those headwinds pushing for Trump to abrogate the deal, some inconvenient facts have gotten blown by the wayside. Like the fact that the deal was actually working and Iran was in compliance, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and all the other signatories. Or the fact that the deal was never supposed to deal with terrorism or Iran’s regional bad behaviour. Or the fact that the deal was reinforcing Iran’s moderate faction, led by President Hassan Rowhani who went out on a limb negotiating with “the Great Satan”.
The Europeans, burned by this White House, are now scrambling for a united response, unwilling to let the Iran deal go but fearful that their companies could be hit by American “secondary sanctions” if they continue to do business with Tehran.
And the big winner, once again, is China, which is likely to step into the commercial void should European companies be forced to pull out of Iran. Beijing and Tehran will move closer together, since Chinese firms are less concerned than the Europeans about being hit by US fines and having transactions financed with US dollars. Look for the renminbi to start replacing the greenback as Iran’s foreign currency of choice. This seems like another example of Donald Trump “Making China Great Again”.
And what of the upcoming North Korea talks?
Trump, the self-styled master negotiator, says he can cut a better, tougher deal with North Korea than Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, forged with Iran. But a deal that mothballed a nuclear programme for up to 15 years and mandated intrusive, unannounced inspections in exchange for sanctions relief sets a pretty high bar.
It is worth remembering that Iran was merely on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon. North Korea, which has conducted six successful nuclear tests, has an arsenal of as many as 60 nukes.
Kim’s nuclear weapons are his survival insurance policy. And in history there has been only one country that developed its own nuclear weapons programme only to scrap it under international pressure. That was another globally isolated rogue regime with a horrific human rights record that was destabilising its neighbours and using terrorism against its opponents overseas.
That country was white-ruled South Africa under the apartheid regime. South Africa’s white minority government voluntarily gave up its six nuclear weapons in 1989. The regime wanted to break free of an international economic embargo, but also in play was the end of the cold war, which brought a halt to Soviet Union assistance to the Marxist states of Angola and Mozambique, and to communist-backed rebels in next-door Namibia. The Pretoria government felt more secure in its own neighbourhood.
Is Trump really going to make Kim feel secure enough to give up his entire nuclear arsenal before sanctions are lifted? Can Kim be assured that Trump and Bolton are not ultimately interested in “regime change” in Pyongyang? Will the Americans start moving the goalposts, first demanding denuclearisation, then pushing to open the prison labour camps, and finally trying to force Kim to stop poisoning errant relatives and anti-regime activists overseas?
Even if Trump were able to strike a deal, can Kim rest assured that the US would honour it in the future? Perhaps a new American president will get elected who calls Trump’s North Korea agreement a “horrible, one-sided” deal that threw an economic lifeline to a brutal dictator. That future US president might decide to unilaterally rip any agreement apart and reimpose sanctions.
Trump has now set a dangerous precedent. It may be one he comes to regret. ■
Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre