Why Trump may be right to treat North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programmes differently
François Godement says there is a common factor in Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal and trying to reach one with North Korea: past deals with both have failed to rein in their missile programmes, as well as their trade between each other and with Syria
US President Donald Trump has expressed hope about signing a denuclearisation agreement with North Korea after tearing up the deal with Iran, inspiring commentary on the irrationality of Trump’s policies. Yet, breaking the convergence between North Korea and Iran may prove essential.
The relationship between Iranian and North Korean proliferation is deep and long-standing, with mutual help at critical junctures and a converging connection to Syria. Separating the proliferators makes sense.
This was true in 2017, when Iran announced the resumption of its long-range missile programme at the height of the international stand-off with North Korea over its missile launches and nuclear tests. During this period, according to a UN report, two North Korean ships delivered crates to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the chemical-weapons-research centre destroyed by a joint US-France-UK strike in April.
Back in 2002, Syria signed a scientific agreement with North Korea undertaking a covert nuclear reactor project – destroyed by Israel in 2007. Iran signed a deal with North Korea in 2012; cooperation was apparent before and after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.
Yet, while Iran recovered some financial resources with the 2015 agreement, North Korea endured increasingly biting sanctions. Iran is only a threshold nuclear power while North Korea, after decades of efforts, is a nuclear weapons state.
Still, Iran, as exposed by Israeli spying and previous International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, was close to the design and supplies for a nuclear weapon. Given North Korea’s proliferation record towards Pakistan and the Middle East, little prevents it from sharing designs for nuclear warheads or selling missile parts. Iran and North Korea expose gaping holes in non-proliferation policies.
First is the permanent failure to ban development of ballistic capabilities along with nuclear weapons. The Missile Technology Control Regime is a voluntary export regime. No United Nations resolution on North Korea or Iraq has formally declared ballistic missile testing illegal.
The Iran agreement did not include such a prohibition, and while North Korea did sign an agreement covering missile launches, it then argued satellite launches were not included. Iran developing more ballistic missiles or a nuclear submarine, when it’s supposed to desist from nuclear weapons, is a farce.
The replacement plant was supposed to be built by 2003, with verification of activities certified by the IAEA. Instead, construction stopped in 2003, with the agreement formally denounced in 2006, by which time North Korea had started its nuclear-enrichment programme.
Iran did not demonstrably cheat on the 2015 agreement, but has developed a massive ballistic programme. North Korea is accustomed to cheating yet presents less danger to its region, except in pre-emptive or suicidal self-defence. The design of Iranian and North Korean conventional submarines share commonalities; Iran has the cash to develop nuclear propulsion.
Successful arms control agreements have started with limitations on missiles. For example, to this day, many withdrawn US and Russian warheads remain in storage. Cheating is expected in halfway agreements, whether formally, as in Pyongyang’s open defiance, or in spirit with Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles without warheads.
By happenstance or design, Trump’s initiatives build on the differences between Iran and North Korea. For Iran, missiles are paramount. The US-France-UK strikes on Syria and devastating Israeli hits on underground structures deliver the message that Iran’s missile sites could also be hit.
Nuclear weapons without missiles are relics, which is the line apparently taken by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whereas National Security Adviser John Bolton demands immediate, complete denuclearisation. Ending North Korea’s nuclear programme, as suggested by Pompeo, but not mentioning existing stock, goes along with promises to refrain from seeking regime change and making North Korea as rich as South Korea. But eliminating the missile threat against the US would leave regional allies exposed.
The 2015 Iran agreement addressed fissile materials while a plan for North Korea could start with missile categories. The administration cannot negotiate arms-control deals and push regime change simultaneously: Trump professes to abandon the latter, and the North Koreans are correct about the need for security guarantees.
Watch: Western allies express concern after Trump pulls US out of Iran deal
Against all expectations, Kim’s propaganda machine is balancing China, while giving huge domestic exposure to developments under way with South Korea, China and the US. Meanwhile, Trump is likely to disappoint regional allies, especially Japan, by leaving in place shorter-range missiles and perhaps warheads.
Regime change for Iran – through a domestic process – remains a tempting option for the US and regional allies. With or without the 2015 agreement, Iran remains bound by IAEA inspections, forced to choose between staying within international law or going rogue. Trump removed most incentives for Iran to comply and must bank on regional allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt – to contain Iran. He must also hope that Europe, despite anger over US withdrawal, persuades Iran to abide by the agreement.
If US policy on Iran stays erratic, or becomes so on North Korea, that will embolden adversaries to a degree not seen before. Europe has few alternatives, and ending the Western alliance would be suicidal. Europe must rise above political debates and push for steady US policies, showing to Iran that compromise on missiles is required, while liaising with regional Asian partners to ensure that negotiations do not neglect fissile materials.
François Godement is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia & China programme and a senior policy fellow. He is a non-resident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online http://yaleglobal.yale.edu