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Trump Will Never Get a Better Deal With Iran

In a span of a little more than five months, North Korea and the United States have gone from trading verbal insults and mobilizing for war to engaging in vibrant diplomacy. Pyongyang now appears willing to consider eliminating its nuclear weapons and bringing an end to the state of war that has existed on the Korean peninsula since 1950.

Concurrent with this seemingly stunning progress, President Donald Trump has sought to change the rules of the game vis-à-vis Iran, pulling out of a multilateral nuclear accord that everyone (including the United States) agreed Tehran was abiding by. In doing so, Trump appears to be trying to recreate the formula that’s worked so well with North Korea—impose stringent economic sanctions while threatening military action should Iran be foolish enough to reopen its nuclear program.

But while Trump and Kim seem to be embracing peace and denuclearization, the devil is always in the details. When Trump and his team approached North Korea as a defeated nation bending to the will of the United States, negotiations collapsed; when North Korea was treated with respect and dignity, the negotiations were revived. How this translates into a manageable and verifiable disarmament agreement acceptable to all parties is not yet clear.

There are historical models out there that the Trump team can draw upon in framing an agreement. The lack of reciprocal disarmament makes the bilateral precedent of U.S.-Soviet arms control moot beyond the practical experience of organizing and implementing a robust on-site inspection regime. However, successful unilateral disarmament examples do exist. Both South Africa and Ukraine voluntarily gave up their nuclear arsenals without significant infringement on their sovereignties, and Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, and (in a separate agreement) Argentina all surrendered their ballistic missile capabilities, again in a manner respectful of their sovereignty and national security.

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Any agreement eventually reached with North Korea that eliminates its nuclear weapons, interconnectional ballistic missile capability, and limits its short- and medium-range missile force (as will be required by both Japan and South Korea) would do well to draw on those historical examples.         

The one model that Trump and his advisors clearly won’t be turning to as a template for success is the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, or JCPOA—the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated in 2015 that Trump withdrew from last month. That agreement was the product of years of difficult and trying talks, conducted amidst concerted economic, political, and (to a lesser yet significant extent) military pressure on Iran. Despite those pressures, in the end the agreement that was reached was a compromise rather than a dictated solution. The West yielded on the issue of Iran’s right to have an indigenous uranium enrichment program, and Iran permitted unprecedented access by international inspectors to its nuclear and non-nuclear infrastructure.   

The fact that the JCPOA was a product of compromise, rather than surrender, has stuck in the craw of the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his first major address since taking up his post, took on the challenge of articulating American policy towards Iran in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and in doing so seemed to sweep the notion of compromise right off the table. In a speech titled “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” Pompeo outlined the Trump administration’s hardline approach to dealing with what he termed Iran’s “malign behavior” in a post-JCPOA world. Delivering broad-brush policy prescriptions that sounded more like ultimatums than negotiating positions, Pompeo’s speech seemed detached from reality, treating Iran as if it were a defeated nation instead of a regional power whose nuclear policies, though rejected by the Trump administration, are supported by Europe, China, and Russia.

In setting out the conditions under which the Trump administration would consider diplomatically re-engaging with Iran on nuclear issues, Pompeo listed a dozen steps Iran would have to fulfill that, when taken collectively, represented de facto terms of surrender that no Iranian political figure could ever agree to and hope to survive. That isn’t to say that the government in Tehran would be averse to negotiations of any kind—Iran had shown some flexibility in discussions with European parties prior to the American withdrawal on several of the issues contained in Pompeo’s 12-step program, including ballistic missiles, relations with Hezbollah, and a resolution to the Syrian crisis. There were some indications that Iran would even be willing to discuss ways to manage how it would proceed with enrichment once the so-called “sunset clauses” limiting the number of operational centrifuges expired.

The Trump administration, however, has shown no inclination towards engaging in negotiations of that sort. Pompeo’s speech was about more than simply rejecting the JCPOA—it was a virtual declaration of war against Iran. Many of the 12 preconditions set down by Pompeo were so preposterous—full Iranian withdrawal from Syria, termination of all extraterritorial activity by the Revolutionary Guards, permanent cessation of enrichment operations, no-notice inspections of military facilities—as to make it impossible for there to be any chance of a negotiated settlement with Iran.  

This seems to be the true intent of Pompeo’s new Iran strategy: to break Iran economically to foster regime change from within, and, failing that, to defeat Iran militarily. In this, Pompeo seems to be drawing from the same playbook that led to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. What Pompeo and the others advising Trump on Iran policy seem to have forgotten is that the opening chapter of the Iraq playbook was the military defeat of Iraq in Desert Storm and the devastation of sanctions on the Iraqi economy and infrastructure. Iran today is neither defeated nor isolated, and the United States will learn the hard way that it will take much more than renewed economic sanctions and threats of military strikes to alter its policy.

When in the mid-2000s global pressure was initiated against Iran to constrain its nuclear program, it had fewer than 100 centrifuges in operation; when the JCPOA was signed in 2015, it had nearly 20,000. The notion that “maximum pressure” is the key to success is, simply put, unfounded. Trump began his presidency boldly proclaiming that North Korea would never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon or the means to deliver one to American shores; by early 2018, North Korea possessed a nuclear-tipped ICBM that could reach all of the United States. Trump was driven to negotiations by the reality of North Korea’s nuclear capability just as much as Obama was driven to negotiate with Iran because of the reality of its expansive uranium enrichment capacity. Obama and the rest of the world were compelled to deal with the reality of a sovereign, undefeated Iran when negotiating a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. The result was the JCPOA Trump despises.

Trump is about to learn that he can bluster all he wants about “maximum pressure,” but North Korea is a sovereign, undefeated nation, and whatever disarmament deal that emerges from the U.S.-North Korean summit will be framed by the four corners of that reality. The Singapore summit is an accomplishment and Trump deserves credit for it. But getting North Korea to sit down at the table and getting North Korea to sign an acceptable disarmament agreement are two different things altogether. The irony is that, should these negotiations succeed, Trump may very well find himself defending a deal that more resembles the JCPOA in construct that the fanciful Iranian “surrender” envisioned in Pompeo’s speech.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War [1].

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Trump Will Never Get a Better Deal With Iran"

#1 Comment By Procivic On June 12, 2018 @ 1:35 am

An overstretched economy and military, a president who confuses vulgar theatrics with leadership, sycophants displacing capable advisers, a voting public enticed to reject long-held values for base instincs, loyal allies betrayed while courting new-money kleptocracies — what else does an ebbing empire need?

#2 Comment By BobS On June 12, 2018 @ 7:35 am

“Any agreement eventually reached with North Korea that eliminates its nuclear weapons” is not an agreement that is going to happen.

#3 Comment By shecky On June 12, 2018 @ 9:19 am

Any deal with North Korea will never be as good as JCPOA. But whatever it might be, it won’t have been negotiated by a black man in office, so it will be better than JCPOA, of course.

#4 Comment By John S On June 12, 2018 @ 9:37 am

Trump is practically clueless. His only skill is his ability to build and sustain a personality cult. That’s not enough to formulate a real set of policies, foreign and domestic, which will do this country any good.

#5 Comment By General Manager On June 12, 2018 @ 9:50 am

Talk is superior to war. NK needs food and self-respect. We need fewer world hot-spots. Thanks to Bolton and the neocon amen choir the ME will remain in turmoil until the U.S. leads and stops being led. I hope Trump reengages with Iran as he just did with NK. Will the implosive and self-serving neocons let him?

#6 Comment By JeffK On June 12, 2018 @ 9:58 am

The JCPOA is an Obama accomplishment. Therefore, it must be destroyed. Nothing else matters.

#7 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 12, 2018 @ 10:02 am

Re: “But getting North Korea to sit down at the table.”

Let’s not forget that a summit meeting between the North Korean leader and the U.S. President has been on offer from the NK side for decades. It’s really a question of them getting us to sit down, not the other way around. And so far, they’ve given up nothing for it.

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On June 12, 2018 @ 10:53 am

Trump could do with Iran what he just did with North Korea — sign a letter, declare the result a deal that is his, and say everything is now fixed.

Doing it twice might actually get him that Nobel, even though his claims for his own “deals” are lame or worse.

I hope he does. It is worth it.

#9 Comment By Dieter Heymann On June 12, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

I have often wondered what is the use of ICBM’s if you do not have even a single nuclear weapon?
The case of South Africa was remarkable because the country was allowed to keep all of its weapon-grade U235 without dilution to non-weapons grade. Will NK insist on the same?

#10 Comment By Dee On June 12, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

Wow. There are so many ridiculous things in this article it would take days to respond to..

but this: “The fact that the JCPOA was a product of compromise, rather than surrender, has stuck in the craw of the Trump administration.”

trump’s campaign was all about the folly of our mid-east disastrous wars that he didn’t support, ya know MAGA, (didnt support that is until he ran for something), and now what sticks in his craw is that we couldn’t get complete surrender before we leave post haste..

what a joke..

Once he got elected he went full on AIPAC’ers.. smh.

#11 Comment By SteveK9 On June 12, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

You are still thinking in a very one-sided way. An agreement will include the withdrawal of US forces and missile installation from S. Korea. There is no parallel to that in Iran.

#12 Comment By Richter rox On June 12, 2018 @ 5:14 pm

Trump is so far in front of the pundit class that it is embarrassing at this point .

Experts at what ?

#13 Comment By Eileen Kuch On June 12, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

Scott Ritter, you’re absolutely right, Trump will never get a better deal with Iran, than the deal he shredded. Iran doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons since Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini declared them anathema to Islam in religious decrees (Fatwas); thus, any nuke program the Iranian Nuclear Scientists had been working on were immediately ended, after the Fatwas were issued, and the scientists worked on generating electricity and developing medical isotopes.
Iran, however, has been developing more advanced missiles for some time, since Israeli PM Bibzy Netanyahu had been issuing bombing threats against the Islamic Republic; the latest missiles are so accurate that they can hit the Dimona Nuclear Facility and its nuclear weapons stockpiles, turning the Zionist Entity into a huge glass parking lot. No wonder, Bibzy’s threats are merely bluffs.

#14 Comment By LouisM On June 12, 2018 @ 9:12 pm

I can tell you why any Treaty with North Korea WILL NOT look like the JCPOA.
1) Trump will not allow himself to be compared to Obama or all his threats and bluster and torched earth strategy yielding the same results as Obama.
2) The democrats will not sign a North Korea Treaty that looks like the JCPOA and certainly not without humiliating Trump in the process.

#15 Comment By Miguel On June 12, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

Well, the pact with North korea could be successful, if that country can have assurancies not to be attacked in the future. From this point of view, the chances for success look slim, but ther could be a little chance for hope.

Even if a dubt that the Chinese would risk their business with the U.S. for the North Koreans, North Korea still has a large frontier with China, and I don’t think the Chinese want to see that frontier full of U.S forces. On the other hand, Russia also has a frontier, even if small, with North Korea, and I doubt as much they want to see it full of U.S. military forces.

U.S. can defeat the russian. U.S. could possibly defeat the chinese, because chinese military technology isn’t that advanced, although it has progressed in the last decades. But I doubt U.S. could defeat both of them at the same time.

And, more importan, I -sure, I am not an expert- I am convinced the damages to U.S. economy could be irreversible, and lead to a defeat larger than any battlefield defeat.

That is why I consider it possible for the U.S. to be considering to respect North Korea for real.

#16 Comment By push / shove On June 13, 2018 @ 7:50 am

@LouisM : “I can tell you why any Treaty with North Korea WILL NOT look like the JCPOA.
1) Trump will not allow himself to be compared to Obama or all his threats and bluster and torched earth strategy yielding the same results as Obama.”

But Trump is continuing or even intensifying Obama policies everywhere else in the Middle East. He is continuing the Obama policy of helping Saudi Arabia starve and wreck Yemen. He is following the Obama policy of putting troops into Africa as a consequence of the Libya disaster. He has “boots on the ground” in Syria and has bombed Assad’s military.

In other words he is following the Obama playbook in the Middle East almost slavishly, the difference being a matter of intensity here or there.

And obviously under Trump the mask is off with respect to our role as “honest broker” in the Israel-Palestine mess. Israeli control of overall US Mideast strategy is now a matter of record – Trump does what Netanyahu tells him to do, as Mitt Romney once promised to do. It is that, the need to do what Netanyahu says, far more than any desire to break with Obama policy, that drove Trump to pull out of JCPOA. And it is Netanyahu who will decide what deal Trump will be permitted to make in its place, or whether America must fight a war with Iran instead.

#17 Comment By Deggjr On June 13, 2018 @ 10:06 am

Great article.

North Korea is a sovereign, undefeated nation, and whatever disarmament deal that emerges from the U.S.-North Korean summit will be framed by the four corners of that reality.

Iran is also a sovereign, undefeated nation.

Iraq was a defeated nation. Our military victory didn’t end our middle east issues.

#18 Comment By Julia On June 14, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

You’re right. Which is why we should have mercy on the Iranian people and insist on regime change instead. The mullahs bullied and murdered their way in and it would be no pity to remove them in the same way.

#19 Comment By LouisM On June 17, 2018 @ 6:24 pm

I would be very surprised if the US and Israel and Saudi Arabia actually wanted an improved Treaty with Iran. Its possible. More likely its politics.

I think they (US, Israel and Saudi Arabia) really want some sort of Iranian collapse or coup which would evict the Mullahs from power.

It is quite possible that removing the Mullahs from Iran would restore Iran to a secular republic much like Turkey before Erdogan.

Further, if Iran became a secular republic that would stabilize Iraq as a secular republic. Now, Iran and Iraq might have friendly relations with Russia but I doubt they would be militaristic as Sadam in Iraq and the Mullah’s in Iran would have been open to participating in. Much of Tehran people already are secular and they don’t consider themselves arab or muslim. They look at arabs as the people that conquered them and forced the Islamic religion on them so Iran is ripe for such a transition.

Any deal with the mullahs would serve to stabilize their regime and keep them in power and I think that goal is just the smoke and mirrors of politics while regime change is being plotted in the shadows.

It doesn’t matter what treaty is signed with Iranian Mullahs. The Mullahs want to be a nuclear muslim nation like Pakistan but with a Russian partner rather than a US one. Iran could get a nuclear bomb tomorrow from Russia or Pakistan that’s why its a delicate situation.

I wouldn’t hold out hope for a revised JCPOA. The real goal is regime change.

PS: The US and Europe and Israel better watch their back because Turkey under Erdogan is turning into the new Mideast threat.