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Negotiating a Nuclear Deal with North Korea Just Got a Whole Lot Harder


By Troy Stangarone

If negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea was already a fraught proposition, President Donald Trump’s decision to no longer certify the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) just made that prospect all the more difficult.

For decades one of the main obstacles to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue has been a lack of trust in North Korea’s ability to live up to an agreement. In the late 1990s the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework to halt North Korea’s first push to develop a nuclear weapon and then under the Obama Administration the two sides negotiated the Leap Day Agreement to freeze North Korea’s ballistic missile tests. In both cases the agreements fell apart due to actions by North Korea.  Now the United States is taking actions in relation to the Iran nuclear agreement that raise questions about the United States willingness to live up to a negotiated agreement.

In the case of Iran, there is general agreement that it is in compliance with JCPOA. However, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) requires the president to certify not just that Iran is in technical compliance with the JCPOA, but also that the suspension of sanctions is “appropriate and proportionate” as well as in the U.S. national interests. It is on the basis that the current sanctions relief is not “appropriate and proportionate” to the steps that Iran has taken under JCPOA that President Trump decided to end certification, not on the basis of Iran’s compliance.

President Trump took this step over concerns centered on issues that the agreement was never intended to address such as Iran’s support for non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the regime’s continued ballistic missile tests. In doing so, he has moved to increase pressure on Iran over its broader behavior, but he has also raised questions about U.S. credibility in any efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea.

The president’s decision does not mean that the United States has withdrawn from JCPOA. Instead, by refusing to certify Iran President Trump has thrown the issue back to Congress, which now has 90 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. The expectation is that Congress will not immediately impose sanctions, but rather work to make changes to INARA. However, should the Congress re-impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program the United States would be in violation of JCPOA.

With the agreement back in Congress’ hands, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has put forward a proposal with the Trump Administration and Senator Tom Cotton to amend INARA. Under the proposal, U.S. sanctions on Iran would snap back into place if the intelligence community determined that Iran had taken steps to enhance its nuclear program that moved it under the one year breakout period for developing a nuclear weapon. It would also use the threat of re-imposing sanctions to remove the sunset clauses in JCPOA, strengthen verification, and limit Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges.

While all are worthy goals, in pursing changes through an amendment of U.S. law rather than new negotiations with Iran the Trump Admiration and Congress would in essence be seeking to unilateral rewrite the agreement. In fact, President Trump stated as much when he said that he would like to “make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law.” If the United States can simply redo significant provisions of an international agreement through its own domestic law, there is little incentive for North Korea to negotiate a deal with a country that will try to use its own laws to unilaterally rewrite an agreement even if North Korea lives up to its end of the bargain?

Beyond undermining U.S. credibility in talks with North Korea, refusing to certify Iran as part of an effort to negotiate better terms also signals to North Korea that any deal might be less advantageous than Pyongyang would be willing to accept. While pressure may bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, reaching an agreement with North Korea will require a tradeoff of benefits and risks on both sides. If the United States now wants better terms from Iran on the nuclear deal, a type of deal which North Korea has already indicated is unacceptable, decertifying Iran only moves the two sides potential negotiating positons further apart should talks become possible.

The decision on Iran also makes maintaining a unified international front with North Korea more difficult. U.S. credibility isn’t merely about North Korea’s willingness to trust the United States in any negotiations, but also that of our partners that the United States is working in good faith and that any agreement reached will be upheld as long as North Korea maintains the terms. If the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word should the political situation change, there is less incentive for countries such as China to bear the burden of sanctions to bring North Korea to the table.

At a time when the United States already faced a difficult nuclear crisis with North Korea, moving to unilaterally alter the Iran deal only complicates matters. The United States could now find itself dealing with two nuclear crises, more reluctance among allies and partners to help the United States, and a North Korea that has an additional reason to be skeptical of negotiating a deal with the United States, none of which are in the United States’ national interest.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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