Last Friday, Donald Trump announced, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, that he would not certify that Iran has been in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His refusal to certify that Iran has not tried to continue developing nuclear weapons (which needs to be done every 90 days) means that the US Congress now needs to decide whether or not to pass legislation that would reimpose economic sanctions on Iran. Trump’s decision, which was apparently motivated by a belief that Iran hasn’t upheld its “spirit” and that he would withdraw entirely if it isn’t sufficiently amended, has been met with a less than enthusiastic international response. All five of the other states involved in negotiating the deal with Iran (the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany) have openly criticized Trump’s actions as an attempt to undermine the deal, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that his government is upholding its end of the agreement and will continue to do so. The only countries that have openly praised Trump’s decision are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which had long been against any kind of agreement that lifted sanctions and have called for the JCPOA to be scrapped. Even high-ranking US officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have argued in favour of upholding the JCPOA due to how it helps American interests by keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. (Presumably this is only serving to confirm Tillerson’s comments from a few months ago that Trump is a moron). While Trump’s argument that Iran has ramped up its support of militant groups throughout the Middle East is technically true, it completely ignores the fact that the JCPOA was never meant to do anything beyond freeze the Iranian nuclear program. If the US does ultimately decide to abandon the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions in spite of Iran keeping its nuclear weapons program frozen, it could very well encourage the Iranian government to resume weapons development, since it would be suffering the same penalties without the upside (from the Iranian perspective) of having a nuclear deterrent.
At the same time, Trump has been faced with a worsening nuclear crisis with North Korea, which has continued to carry out nuclear test explosions and launch test missiles over neighbouring Japan. The long-standing hostility between the US and North Korea, which dates back to the Korean War and has been reinforced by North Korea’s rhetoric, has worsened throughout Trump’s presidency due to his near-constant threats to use military force against it. His speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, however, has made the situation even more tense, as his threat to destroy North Korea if it continued to threaten the US and its allies is apparently being viewed as a declaration of war by Kim Jong-Un and his government. (Technically speaking, this was just a reiteration of American extended nuclear deterrence phrased in the least diplomatic way possible, but it’s not hard to see why the North Korean government would be more than a little discomfited by this). Neither head of state appears to be interested in reaching a diplomatic solution, as the North Korean government has explicitly refused to directly engage with the US, while Trump completely undermined any potential American effort to do so by tweeting that Tillerson was “wasting his time” with diplomacy. As a result, fears that both sides could end up going to war (either a conventional or nuclear one) have increased over the past month, with Japan and South Korea preparing for the worst.
So what do these two situations have to do with each other (besides the nuclear weapons angle, that is)? In short, Trump’s actions towards Iran only serve to worsen the situation with North Korea. By threatening to scrap the Iran deal, Trump could potentially undermine US credibility in future diplomatic agreements, since it creates the impression that any future commitments may not be upheld by future administrations (especially since Trump’s rationale for not certifying apparently boils down to not liking Iran). While North Korea has never been receptive to diplomatic overtures from the US and has cheated on agreements in the past, such as the 1994 Agreed Framework that was meant to end its then-nascent nuclear program, some form of diplomacy with North Korea would be necessary to defusing tensions with the US. Trump’s reneging on the Iran deal, however, more or less make this impossible, since it would now seem that the US can’t be trusted to actually follow an agreement. The absolute best case scenario that North Korea would be able to expect at this point is that the two countries (and presumably their allies) would be trapped in an endless renegotiation process that ultimately achieves nothing. At worst, they could end up successfully negotiating an agreement with the US, only for it to be abandoned by Trump or a later president whenever they feel like it, regardless of whether or not North Korea has actually acted in compliance (admittedly, its past track record makes this doubtful to begin with).
In short, Trump’s rash actions regarding Iran have no apparent benefit, save perhaps to increase his popularity with those who opposed the JCPOA from the beginning. Instead, his decision has only served to undermine American credibility, making any kind of diplomatic resolution to the North Korean crisis even more remote than it was before while making armed conflict much more likely. Even a conventional war could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people in both North and South Korea, to say nothing of the death toll that would result from any kind of nuclear conflict. At the same time, abandoning the JCPOA could lead to Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons again at some point in the future, leading to a nuclear standoff again (or worse yet, nuclear crises on two fronts simultaneously)! And even if armed conflict is somehow avoided in either case, US policy under Trump may make it difficult for any kind of diplomacy to be conducted by future administrations, since it could very well establish a precedent for their successors to simply abandon commitments that they don’t feel like upholding. It’s almost perversely impressive how quickly the current administration has managed to undermine both itself and its successors – and Trump hasn’t even been in power for a full year yet!
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article is a cross-post from Mark’s Policy Musings.