“The Trump administration is currently conducting across the entire government a review of our Iran policy,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced on April 19, adding that “an unchecked Iran has the potential to follow the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it.” Ironically, the Trump administration appears to be following the same path on Iran as George W. Bush did on North Korea. The result could be equally dangerous.
By undermining implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — a viable, verified, and sound agreement that blocks Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — President Trump risks removing the shackles from Tehran’s nuclear efforts. We’ve been down that road before; instead of preserving and strengthening the Agreed Framework with North Korea, Bush freed Pyongyang to keep working on nuclear weapons that could eventually reach American territory.
In 1994, North Korea’s nuclear program was still merely nascent, but months away from producing working weapons. President Clinton negotiated the bilateral Agreed Framework that froze and sought to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear efforts. The deal was labeled by partisan voices as weak and appeasement of a terrorist state. When the GOP took control of the House of Representatives later that year, Congress began erode the deal, denying funds and support that the executive branch needed to implement America’s side of the agreement.
In 2001, George W. Bush inherited the Agreed Framework and launched a North Korean policy review. By then, there was evidence that North Korea was cheating on the deal by pursuing a covert uranium enrichment program. In 2002, the Bush administration — convinced that regime change was preferable to negotiated nonproliferation deals — confronted the North over its violations. Instead of working to save the deal, the White House chose to walk away. This set North Korea free to restart its nuclear weapon program. While it is possible the Agreed Framework would have eventually collapsed on its own, the U.S. failure to vigorously sustain a hard-won negotiated agreement denied North Korea the benefits to which they were entitled and likely undermined the value Pyongyang saw in the deal, thus reducing their incentives to comply.
In 2005, after abandoning the Agreed Framework, the Bush administration tried to negotiate a more comprehensive disarmament agreement with North Korea. By then, however, Pyongyang had taken material previously frozen under IAEA inspections and produced a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Within a year, it would conduct its first nuclear test. Since then, no combination of negotiations, incentives, pressure, or sanctions has been able to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The parallels with Iran today are uncanny. Two years ago, President Obama and five other global powers negotiated the JCPOA with Iran. The deal, which verifiably prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, suffered from strong partisan arguments that the deal was weak and appeased a terrorist state. Various lawmakers, upset that they could not kill the deal before it went into force, have sought to undermine its implementation. Now President Trump is hinting that he may do the same —scuttling the JPOCA with no viable replacement or strategy for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
The State Department and the International Atomic Energy Agency have confirmed Iran is abiding by its obligations. Despite this, President Trump has sought to discredit the deal, stating that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA. Secretary Tillerson even questioned his own department’s judgment, saying that “the JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran” despite conclusive evidence that Iran remains a non-nuclear state. And unlike his predecessor, President Trump seems willing to allow Congress to pass sanctions legislation inconsistent with America’s commitments under the JCPOA. This could lead Iran’s leaders to scale back their own compliance with the deal.
In many ways, President Trump’s concerns with Iran are understandable. The country remains a state sponsor of terrorism, continues to back Syria’s President Assad, undermines U.S. allies in the region and, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, continues to develop ballistic missiles. Yet none of these problems get better if the nuclear agreement with Iran unravels. Just as with North Korea, our ability to protect our friends and advance our interests is vastly more difficult if we have to confront a nuclear-capable Iran. We should be worried about Iranian behavior in a variety of arenas and push back more effectively, but not at the expense of an effective deal that keeps Iran from going nuclear.
If the Trump administration is to challenge Iran’s dangerous actions, it has to prioritize those steps it most wants to prevent Iran from taking. Going nuclear should rise to the top of that list, and that priority should inform both the tone and substance of the Iran policy review now underway. By keeping the JCPOA on track, the Trump administration can both take on Iran more effectively and prevent some future administration from dealing with a more dangerous nuclear-armed adversary, something many wish had happened under George W. Bush with respect to North Korea.