By Eli Lake
January 31, 2019
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, appeared to undermine two premises of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy on Tuesday. First he said that North Korea was not likely to give up its nuclear weapons. Then he said that Iran was still complying with the international agreement to pause its own nuclear program.
This was the instant headline for most news organizations. Yet again, Trump’s rhetoric is disconnected from the facts presented by the professionals serving in his administration. Some Democrats pounced.
This political point-scoring is too easy — and misses a larger point on the policy. Trump’s critics might want to ask themselves a question: If he is wrong to seek a deal with North Korea, was Obama wrong to have pursued one with Iran? Conversely, if the Iran agreement was worth doing, then why isn’t one with North Korea?
To be sure, there are important differences between the two nations. Iran has never fielded or tested a nuclear weapon, and North Korea has. North Korea has not sought to train and equip militias throughout Northeast Asia, the way that Iran has done in the Middle East.
What the nuclear diplomacy with both Iran and North Korea shows is the limits of arms-control negotiations with rogue states. Weapons of mass destruction are a dictator’s insurance policy. As Coats put it in his written testimony, “North Korea’s leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.”
That is not the only similarity. Like Iran, North Korea has also used diplomacy to buy time. And this is what Iran ended up getting in their deal. In 2013, when the U.S. began the formal six-party negotiations with Iran, the stated purpose was to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. When the talks ended two years later, the deal was merely to freeze it in place for 10 to 15 years.
Iran disconnected centrifuges, but kept crucial facilities, including the underground bunker in Qom discovered by U.S. spies in 2009. What’s more, the Iran deal had sunset clauses that would lift the limits on Iran’s nuclear fuel production by 2021, while letting Iran modernize the equipment to make that fuel more efficiently. Nor did the nuclear deal address Iran’s development of missiles to deliver a warhead.
That was the key argument against the deal at the time, from Republicans as well as Israelis. Even if Iran complied with its terms, it would be able to enrich enough nuclear fuel that it could easily make nuclear weapons after the sunsets expired. In the meantime, it would be able to use the influx of cash from lifted sanctions to fund its war to dominate the Middle East.
The assessment of the U.S. intelligence community today is that Iran continues to be an aggressor in the region, while it is more or less complying with the limits spelled out in the 2015 agreement. This is despite the U.S. withdrawal from the bargain last year, and its reimposition of sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil exports. At the same time, the very same assessment notes that Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” for it to develop the long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Like North Korea, Iran is still pursuing its insurance policy.
There is a lesson here for Trump — and his critics. Anyone worried about his North Korean diplomacy also needs to be honest about the shortcomings of Obama’s bargain with Iran. Trump himself, meanwhile, should be honest about what he’s trying to accomplish. Because if he really wants to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, he needs to think first about how to rid North Korea of Kim Jong Un.