Commentary | The Hypocrisy of Trump's Nuclear Disarmament Policy
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Joon Young Kwon

- Economics and Finance Consultant, FTI Consulting
- International Finance and Economics, Asia-Pacific, Public Policy, Macroeconomics, and Global Market Specialist

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was barraged with a series of questions over Iran and North Korea during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the 25th of July, 2018. During the hearing, he made clear that the United States wants neither Iran nor North Korea to have nuclear programs. The most revealing question, posed by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, was “why are we allowing North Korea to continue to have nuclear weapon when if Iran is doing any kind of enrichment we are going to impose sanctions against Iran?” In response, Pompeo simply stated that the United States is doing its best to apply different strategies to deal with different countries to prevent nuclear proliferation, which is the U.S. mission statement.

However, U.S. diplomacy in dealing with Iran and North Korea is inherently contradictory, as Senator Ben Cardin pointed out. North Korea has not yet produced any measurable and verifiable denuclearization measures after the Singapore Summit in June, and yet the United States seems to have no intention of imposing sanctions or applying pressures other than UN sanctions on North Korea. In contrast, the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saw resounding success in demilitarizing Iran’s nuclear program. The 2015 treaty between Iran, the European Union, The United States, Russia, and China destroyed Iran’s deep-water reactor, set strict regulations for monitoring nuclear energy plants, and saw Iran turn over the majority of its nuclear stockpiles. Despite these achievements, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the pact, citing it as ineffectual and claiming that, “the deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and — over time — reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.” There exists no credible evidence to support the statement that Iran has violated the JCPOA. 

There is a significant political difference between the cases of Iran and North Korea, as well. For Trump, negotiating a nuclear accord with North Korea would represent a great diplomatic achievement. However, the achievements of the JCPOA are a legacy of the Obama Administration and therefore, in Trump’s mind, a political liability. 

Trump was very strategic—cancelling the summit with North Korea’s hostile remarks yet coming back to the table with concessions from North Korea—leading up to the Singapore Summit with North Korea Kim Jung Un. Bringing North Korea leader to a bilateral summit meeting was an important diplomatic achievement. For Trump, North Korea has been a channel to demonstrate that his unconventional negotiation tactics work well in diplomacy as well. Trump does not want to spoil the moment by imposing more sanctions or diplomatic pressure because such measures would imply that his tactics have failed. Instead, he continues to praise Kim for coming to the negotiation table and showing goodwill, and called the Singapore Summit a resounding success and “very great moment in history of the world” when there have hardly been any major changes. At this moment, North Korea is only making minor concessions, such as returning the remains of US soldiers, and the responsibility of translating goodwill into action still rests on Kim.

The reversal of the JCPOA is not an isolated incident. The Trump Administration has reversed many Obama-era policies, including the U.S. withdrawal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), attempting to abolish the Affordable Care Act, and pivoting from renewable energy back to fossil fuels. For Trump, attacking the previous administration’s policies is an easy way to differentiate himself from his predecessors and rally his base. Moreover, withdrawal from the JCPOA matches his overall diplomatic strategy—isolation and disengagement from multilateral organizations and treaties to put “America First.” In this light, it matters little whether or not Iran has complied with the treaty; Tehran has fallen prey to Trumpian political calculations. Where the Singapore Summit has brought few real changes, the Iran Nuclear Deal brought about concrete action.

It seems unlikely that the United States will manage to resolve the inherent contradictions of withdrawing from the JCPOA with its right hand and negotiating a new accord with North Korea with its left. How the future of North Korean and Iranian denuclearization efforts will play out remains uncertain, but for now, U.S. policy towards North Korea and Iran seems certain.

Originally published in “Joon's Blog: Macro, Geopolitics, Global Culture, Current Events and East Asia.”

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Photo credit:

  1. Mike Pompeo, by Gage Skidmore, Flickr

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