Why Empty Korean Concessions Could Lead To Iranian Nukes

Following his summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump declared the North Korean nuclear threat officially over. While his statement is somewhere between naive and ridiculous, opening a dialogue with North Korea is a positive step — even when it’s shallow and haphazard. Before we hand him the Nobel Peace Prize, though, we should consider the broader implications of his actions with regard to burgeoning nuclear powers beyond the Korean Peninsula, namely Iran.

Trump has effectively traded a nuclear crisis that was inflated and largely contained in a relatively stable region for a different nuclear crisis in the most complex and volatile region on earth — a place that is boiling over with conflict, in part thanks to our constant interventions. As President Trump celebrates a one page statement with vague, all too familiar promises, we must not forget that he also tore up the most comprehensive nuclear pact in world history, creating a new nuclear crisis in the process.

The Iran nuclear threat was largely in check, at least for another decade, until Trump unilaterally moved to disassemble the containment structure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump and the Iranians will each take lessons from the North Korean developments and apply them moving forward. Unfortunately, the lessons will likely lead to strategic choices that seem to ensure the situation will escalate, potentially to dangerous levels.

For the Iranians, the first and most obvious lesson is the reinforcement of the nuclear deterrence theory. The possession of a nuclear weapon is the only way to guarantee the United States does not take military action. It’s the lesson of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now North Korea. The nuclear weapon also happens to be the best bargaining chip, especially when considering what Kim gained in the summit.

Iran’s current breakout time is estimated to be one year. Why negotiate now from a position of weakness instead of engaging with a position of strength in 12 months? Given America’s war weariness, including the strong anti-intervention vein in Trump’s base, it would be a logical calculation on the part of the Iranian regime that a strong domestic constraint on Trump in the near term will buy them enough time to pursue the bomb.

Secondly, the Iranians will recognize that there’s no real value, in security terms, to negotiations with the Europeans. The only decision-maker that matters is Trump. They may continue the process with Europe to buy time, though, and show the world they gave everyone a chance to keep the JCPOA together. However, Trump won’t honor anything Europe decides, Europe has no influence over Trump, and Iran knows those talks are irrelevant to what America, specifically President Trump, ultimately does.

Most importantly, they also now know Trump’s modus operandi. Aggressive rhetoric, followed by a reality TV summit, with a penchant to give things away if he gets to look like he won with his base. This, plus the domestic war weariness of the United States acting as a constraint, and the Iranians will likely conclude two things: First, they have enough time to build the bomb regardless of what Trump says in the near term. Second, if they secure the bomb, they will get many more concessions at the table from Trump than they would otherwise, and the rest of the world will fall in line, thus providing the maximum possible short term security and long term benefits.

On the other hand, Trump will conclude that maximum pressure and aggressive rhetoric were the key to his success and will attempt to duplicate that strategy. In Trump’s mind that’s why the “deal” happened: He was tougher, stronger, and smarter than anyone else. Rinse and repeat. He is likely to push for further sanctions, including against allies, and will lash out aggressively with tough talk, including against allies.

This will only reinforce the Iranian belief that they must secure a nuclear bomb. Additionally, it treats the two situations as equal when these two states are vastly different. The consequence is that President Trump is likely to strengthen the regime’s support and their justification for pursuing the weapon. Further, he signals to the Iranians that the best path forward is to acquire the bomb first, and push for direct bilateral negotiations after. That’s a good platform for Iranian hardliners to sell to the skeptical portions of the Iranian society, and they can now point to North Korea as evidence to support their strategy.

In other words, the lessons Trump and the Iranians will draw from North Korea are likely to drive us toward a renewed, tense, nuclear standoff in the most volatile region on earth. The net effect is some sort of trade in a game of nuclear showdowns — icing one nuclear crisis and getting another back in return. Unfortunately for all of us, this a terrible trade and a bad deal for the American people.

Oren Jacobson is a member of Truman National Security Project. He holds an MA in International Relations, an MS in Economics and Policy Analysis, and an MBA with an emphasis in Strategic Management. Views expressed are his own.