April 15, 2019

Non-Proliferation Policy in the Trump Era: Examining North Korea and Iran

On April 10, 2019, the Center for Global Affairs (CGA) hosted a panel examining the Trump administration's approach to non-proliferation, one described by Clinical Associate Professor and panel moderator W.P.S. Sidhu as “exceptionally unorthodox. It regards Iran, which has no nuclear weapons like a nuclear armed state, while it treats a nuclear armed North Korea as a state that does not possess nuclear weapons.” Against this backdrop the panel comprising of Suzanne DiMaggio, Lori Esposito Murray, and Ankit Panda considered questions that included: What is the rationale behind this administration’s approach to Iran and North Korea? More importantly, is this approach likely to work? If so, what might success look like? If not, what might failure look like?


In comparing the approaches of the Obama and Trump administrations, Suzanne DiMaggio (Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) noted that the steps taken by Obama on Iran were as bold as Trump’s on North Korea, including a concerted effort to talk to Iranians, something that hadn’t really been done before. It took 13 years of public and secret diplomacy on the part of the EU and the Obama administration to achieve the Iran nuclear deal. DiMaggio explained that President Trump was opposed to the deal even before the elections, both because it was a product of the Obama administration and because two key allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia – abhorred it.


In contrast, the Obama administration made no progress on North Korea, even though it was, and still is, a bigger threat. “With North Korea, Trump did not inherit a deal… It was a blank slate,” DiMaggio said. When Trump came into office, North Korean officials felt “this could be a new beginning…” North Koreans are following what is happening with the Iran deal very closely and may be drawing some dangerous lessons: for example, even if you comply with a nuclear deal, sanctions aren’t lifted. “Sanctions are then just punitive, not tools of foreign policy,” she stated. North Korea sees the irreversible nature of some of Iran’s actions and wants to make sure it does not make irreversible changes itself. 


“With North Korea, Trump did not inherit a deal… It was a blank slate”

Suzanne DiMaggio (Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

While no deal has been reached with the North Koreans, the progress made so far has conversely been considered a success by the Trump Administration. According to DiMaggio, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the reason the US was talking to North Korea was because it had nuclear weapons – a message with negative implications both to North Korea and Iran as it suggested the importance of developing and having missiles in leveraging diplomatic relations.


Dr. Lori Esposito Murray (Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations) outlined lessons from the Iran nuclear deal which would be relevant to any future deal with North Korea. Among these was an assessment of the power of sanctions and rewards, the importance of building in constraints on ballistic missiles, and the necessity of obtaining domestic buy-in via Congressional approval and support from regional allies.

Further on the subject of regional alliances, Ankit Panda (Adjunct Senior Fellow, Federation of American Scientists) elaborated on the regional dynamics of any North Korea nuclear deal, suggesting that South Korea was the driver of the current negotiations with North Korea, but that partisan considerations in South Korea and the rise of more conservative parties could have implications for future talks. One their end, the Japanese have been uncompromising because they have seen two North Korean missiles fly over their territory; for Japan, any deal must involve complete nuclear disarmament. Panda also suggested that John Bolton’s return at the Hanoi summit in February 2019 has actually brought some level of “orthodoxy” to US arms control policy, a return to the Bush era in many ways. However, Bolton was also instrumental in seeing the US withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.


Dr. Murray debated whether the “Reagan playbook” – of imposing maximum pressure through sanctions and shrill rhetoric – might work with Iran and North Korea. She opined that Trump could be using it with North Korea. His famous “rocket man” and “fire and fury” comments, significant increase in sanctions pressure, ballistic missile defense employments and military show of force were followed by high-level diplomacy. The “Reagan playbook” is also being witnessed against Iran, with ratcheting up maximum pressure, sanctions, and rhetoric. This rhetoric might signal an early stage in that pressure to be followed by the Trump administration’s initiation of high-level negotiations, which might succeed.


All panelists stressed the importance of reaching an agreement and sustaining it. Panda cautioned that if an agreement was not reached with North Korea, then not only would it be the sole country to leave the non-proliferation treaty, but also the only country to leave the international treaty that is not an ally of the United States. A future with no kind of arms control for North Korea would be very dangerous. Dr. Murray ended by reminding the audience that once acquired, a country never loses the knowledge and capability of nuclear development. Nuclear deals remain important, then, as the only way to manage capability.    

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