The major takeaway from President Donald Trump’s reckless decision to violate the terms of the nuclear development agreement with Iran is that it isolates America and makes it more likely the United States will be drawn into another war of choice in the Middle East.
Until recently, the same could be said for Trump’s actions in Korea. Just months ago, a juvenile-sounding Trump was exchanging taunts with an equally boastful North Korean leader over who had bigger nukes. Now people in South Korea are euphoric that a real peace might be possible on the Korean Peninsula for the first time in 60 years. What changed? And is there hope for a similar turnaround with Iran?
Taking A Back Seat
In America’s ally South Korea, newly elected President Moon Jae-In took the initiative to open negotiations with his North Korean counterpart. To everyone’s surprise, the reclusive Kim Jong Un reciprocated. Moon proceeded to arrange a summit later this spring between Kim and Trump.
Trump, of course, argues that his “tough” rhetoric forced Kim to respond. But that is not the view of the South Korean officials, journalists and policy experts I spoke with last week while accompanying a delegation sponsored by the Former Members of Congress Association. The consensus I heard there is that three things changed.
First, Kim actually finished developing a nuclear arsenal. He froze his nuclear tests, because he doesn’t need any more tests. North Korea is now a nuclear state.
Second, Kim believes he can use his nuclear assets to prevent an attack in the short run and as a bargaining chip to jump-start the economic development his country desperately needs in the longer run.
Third, a confident South Korean president with strong approval ratings stepped up to fill the void left by Trump’s bluster and incompetence, and took control of events.
Moon is now setting the terms for the peace process in Korea, not Trump or his new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ― and certainly not new national security adviser John Bolton, who advocated pre-emptive attacks on the North that would likely have precipitated a war costing hundreds of thousands of Korean lives.
Trump’s abrogation of the Iran agreement has only strengthened Kim’s negotiating position. Amazingly, Kim is now the one who can posture as the “reasonable,” peace-seeking party.
And as Trump is condemned at home and abroad for his actions with Iran, he is showing himself to be increasingly desperate for some sort of foreign policy win that can make him look effective. His insecurity and need to appear a “winner” create a real incentive to come away with a “successful” peace deal in Korea ― regardless of its content.
And, let’s be clear, the terms of a “good deal” in Korea will be very much like the Iran agreement Trump just trashed.
Making America Untrustworthy Again
The agreement with Iran was, without doubt, the strongest anti-nuclear agreement in a decade. It included tough, verifiable inspection protocols. And the International Atomic Energy Agency has found Iran to be in compliance with its terms.
Would it ideally have included even greater or more permanent concessions? Sure. But that’s not how negotiations work. And the idea that Trump can rip up this agreement and somehow get the Iranians to agree to something even more limiting is pure fantasy.
Iran ripped out close to 14,000 centrifuges, filled the core of its Arak plutonium reactor with concrete, shipped out the tons of uranium gas it had stockpiled and froze what was left of its civilian nuclear program for 15 years. Those actions, coupled with rigorous inspections, meant that Iran could not sprint to “breakout” and create a nuclear bomb for the next two decades.
It will be hard to get such a verification program with the reclusive North Korean regime. And it will be harder still to provide enough security guarantees and economic development to get the North Koreans to give up their long-sought nuclear arsenal in the first place.
One of the experts we met with in South Korea made the case that it was not in America’s interest to give as little as possible to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization. It would, he argued, be smarter to give as much as is necessary to make the North so invested in the success of the deal that they would not risk cheating.
That psychology, of course, has now become even more difficult, because Trump has broadcast to the world that America can no longer be trusted to keep its international commitments.
Two Possible Outcomes
Now that America’s key ally in Korea has at least contained the crisis there, can America’s allies ― together with Russia and China ― prevent a massive new escalation in the Middle East as well?
Two scenarios could likely flow from Trump’s reckless decision to violate the terms of the Iran deal. In the first case, Iran abandons the deal as well, and proceeds with its nuclear program. That would probably prompt Saudi Arabia to pursue a nuclear program of its own. It would also enable war hawks like Bolton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press for a pre-emptive war with Iran, the way they did in Iraq.
If you liked the war in Iraq, you’ll love the war with Iran. Iran has twice the population of Iraq and more than twice the gross domestic product. It maintains a much larger, much better-equipped military than Saddam Hussein’s forces when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Bolton and Netanyahu both lobbied for the war in Iraq that most Americans consider a disaster. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
The second possibility ― now our only hope to avoid either another war in the Middle East or a nuclear Iran ― is that the other parties to the deal, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, can keep the lid on until America rids itself of this reckless, impulsive, egomaniacal, incompetent president.
In that case, Iran would negotiate to maintain its commitments with the other parties to the deal. That would require that they in turn provide Iran with enough economic incentives to make up for the absence of the United States. American companies like Boeing would lose large amounts of business to European firms.
What’s more, the United States would be on the outside looking in ― isolated from the rest of the world, while others set the terms. And if Trump tried to impose secondary sanctions on the Europeans who continue to keep their agreements with Iran, we would find ourselves in an economic war with our closest allies as well.
In Korea and the Middle East, all of this adds up to the U.S. taking a back seat. Maybe it’s time for an instant replay of all those speeches where Trump accused President Barack Obama of “leading from behind.”
Robert Creamer is a longtime political organizer and strategist, and author of the book Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win. He is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.