Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya
Does scrapping the Iran deal cast a shadow?
On June 12, President Trump will meet the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un in Singapore, to negotiate the terms of de-nuclearisation, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. This meeting marks a watershed moment in the diplomatic effort to engage with North Korea, and has the ability to be a potential game-changer as far as stability in the Korean peninsula is concerned.
On May 8, USA withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). More popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, this agreement had imposed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions on the nation. Commentators have expressed grave concerns as to whether this withdrawal by Trump is really in the best interest of the US (or the middle-east, for that matter). Leaving aside the question of (de)merits of the withdrawal itself, it is important to consider whether this action by the Trump administration will have any impact on the June 12 meeting with Kim. I will argue the negative, i.e., scrapping the Iran nuclear deal does not affect Korean peace talks to a great extent. To support this claim, I shall present two arguments: first, Iran and Korea are two very different parties, and second, that the ‘distrust’ argument is unfounded.
Korea and Iran are two very different parties
While analysing the effect that USA’s exit from the JCPoA will have on USA’s negotiation with Korea, the following key differences between the two parties, Iran and N. Korea, cannot be ignored:
- Korea and Iran’s nuclear capabilities are vastly different – The former possesses nuclear warheads, and missiles capable of carrying such warheads over vast distances. It has threatened nuclear attacks not only against its neighbours but against USA as well. On the other hand, Iran does not have any nuclear warheads, as it has not yet managed to produce weapons-grade uranium, which requires 90% enrichment. This means that the fallout of failing to negotiate a deal with N. Korea is much higher than the same scenario in Iran. It will be more difficult for USA to walk away from a Korean peace agreement.
- The nature of the negotiation is different – As far as Iran is concerned, it was apparent that the Obama administration had strong-armed it into sitting at the negotiating table by using the threat of extended sanctions. In the case of N. Korea, however, although sanctions are a factor, Kim has himself played a more proactive role in coming to the table. He has tried hard to project the impression that he is equally responsible for initiating the dialogue of de-escalation between N. Korea and USA.
- The regional policy in the Korean peninsula is far more consistent than in the middle-east – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been unabashedly opposed to any kind of US-Iran agreement and has detracted the JCPoA since its very inception. On the other hand, South Korean President Moon has been actively trying to bring N. Korea and USA to the negotiating table. Bringing peace to the Korean peninsula is clearly a top priority for him. Unlike Iran and Israel’s opposing agendas, the two Koreas are (at least on a prima facie basis) united in ensuring de-escalation of hostilities. This makes it easier for Kim to negotiate a more favourable deal. American disengagement from Korean peace talks will not be looked upon favourably by the regional players (China, Japan, Russia, and S. Korea)., some of whom are key American allies. Owing to the absence of a united regional policy and Israel’s active opposition, Iran did not have this luxury.
The ‘distrust’ argument is unfounded
The argument that Trump’s exit from the Iran deal foments distrust between N. Korea and USA does not have too much merit. A lack of trust has always dominated diplomatic engagement between USA and N. Korea. Trump walking away from the Iran deal does not exacerbate this to a great extent.
- N. Korea is no stranger to the volatility in US decision-making – In 2002, Bush abandoned the arms control agreement with N. Korea, brokered by the Clinton administration in 1994. According to the NY Times, Bush was ‘deeply suspicious of the usefulness of the accord’ when he took office, which is uncannily similar to Trump’s sentiments towards the JCPoA. This means that scrapping the Iran deal will not shock N. Korea so much as it will reaffirm his belief that US Administration cannot be trusted.
- USA’s exit from the Iran deal was not unexpected – When Trump walked out of the JCPoA, Kim could not have been too surprised. In addition to abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, scrapping the JCPoA was one of Trump’s primary campaign promises. Trump withdrew from the TPP in January 2017, and from the Paris Agreement in August. If these withdrawals were anything to go by, USA’s exit from the Iran deal was not too hard to predict. Despite this, Kim invited Trump for negotiations on DPRK’s nuclear program. In fact, in March 2018, NY Times reported that Kim was eager to meet Trump as soon as possible. Thus, given the willingness to engage that Kim has displayed over the last few months, it is highly unlikely that USA’s Iran policy will cast a major shadow over Trump’s negotiation with Kim.
For the above reasons, it is safe to conclude that USA’s withdrawal from the JCPoA is unlikely to have a major impact on Trump’s meeting with Kim in June. Although the two events are not entirely distinct, it cannot be argued that scrapping the JCPoA reduces the possibility of a favourable outcome in the Korean peninsula.