Iran Nuclear Deal and North Korean Talks: The Difference

There is a remarkable contrast between the current state of the North Korean negotiations and the recently decertified Iran nuclear agreement.

In August, President Trump threatened the Pyongyang government with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to its advances in atomic weaponry. Much of the media and the political Left reacted to the president’s tweet with a fit of apoplexy and predicted something not very short of Armageddon.

The threatening tactic, however, has achieved the desired result. Before even taking a seat at the bargaining table, Kim Jong-un has returned Americans he had illegally detained, and announced he would abandon his nuclear efforts. Indeed, journalists have already been invited to a ceremony later this month in which part of the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear testing facilities would be publicly destroyed.

Not unexpectedly, Kim has attempted to bolster his bargaining position by threatening the upcoming talks in response to U.S.-South Korean training exercises. That’s understandable. Similar actions bore fruit during the Obama years, but it appears to have had little significant effect on the current White House, which has taken the comments in stride.

Compare that with President Obama’s stance in negotiations with Iran, in which the former administration essentially entered the talks signaling it would grant major concessions before receiving any solid give-backs from Tehran. The result, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), failed to provide any substantive benefit to the United States, except—at best—a delay in Iran’s developing nuclear weapons and some inconvenience caused by the necessity of hiding prior or ongoing research, a fact made startlingly clear by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent revelations.

The Iran deal’s flaws are glaringly obvious. Even if the mullahs faithfully complied with its provisions, they would still have the right to build atomic bombs within a decade. Additionally, the JCPOA did nothing to inhibit Iran’s long-range missile development program. In return, Iran received vast sums of cash up front, and an end to the sanctions that had hobbled its economy.

Despite the obvious and crucial shortcomings which made the JCPOA, as noted by the White House, “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Obama loyalists continue to defend it. Some, most notably former Secretary of State John Kerry, have worked diligently to protect it, even going so far as arguably violating the Logan Act (which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating such matters with foreign governments) in their efforts.

The concept of American negotiators entering into talks with adversarial powers from a position of strength has, despite its apparent success with North Korea so far, received little support from those more accustomed to Washington’s prior agreement-at-any-price modus operandi.

Martin B. Malin and Hui Zhang wrote in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

It is not yet clear if the Trump administration has a strategy for negotiating with North Korea . . . much public commentary has focused . . . on the apparent lack of preparedness inside the US administration . . .  with few exceptions, there has been almost no US thinking about a negotiating strategy. Incoming national security advisor John Bolton has recently suggested bombing North Korea. Even the most thoughtful analysts have focused almost exclusively on maintaining coercive leverage in the course of negotiations . . .  The United States must come to terms with the possibility that it may need to make peace with North Korea, and take significant steps toward full normalization before Kim Jong-un would ever implement a complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of his nuclear arsenal.

Malin and Zhang have been proven incorrect, as were the extensive number of critics that decried President Trump’s “fire and fury” comments.

Obama was personally invested in the Iran deal. In essence, he placed his legacy above the needs of the nation. Trump, despite the political gains he could reap from a North Korea success, has repeatedly stressed that he is willing to walk away if the talks don’t produce good results, placing him in a far better negotiating position than his predecessor.

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