Copies of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the front page sit in the back of a courier’s motorcycle in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

Trump Links Move on Iran Deal to His Other Crisis: North Korea

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump wants North Korea to cut a deal to give up its nuclear weapons. But on Tuesday, he walked away from a similar deal -- one that called on Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

To Trump’s critics, abandoning the Iran agreement will only teach North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the U.S. can’t be trusted. Yet the president believes he can turn that argument on its head by using the withdrawal to show that he’s a man who keeps his promises -- including his pledge to walk away from a deal with Tehran he’s long considered flawed.

The signal from Trump was clear: After the initial bluster fades, the president is betting Iran will come back to the negotiating table. And that North Korea will stay there.

“Today’s action sends a critical message: the United States no longer makes empty threats,” Trump said. “When I make promises, I keep them.”

What’s Next: Who Gets Hit When U.S. Resumes Iran Sanctions

The U.S. built a global coalition behind a crippling sanctions regime against North Korea, a move the administration believes was key to the regime’s recent turnaround and announced willingness to entertain giving up its nuclear weapons. Not by coincidence, Trump’s Iran announcement came with a pointed aside that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to Pyongyang to work out details of a planned U.S.-North Korea summit.

Ignoring Hand-Wringing

Tuesday’s move embodies the Trump administration’s approach to the world: a disregard for hand-wringing from Democrats, allies abroad and moderate Republicans that the U.S. is abandoning its global leadership. As the world’s largest economy and global military power, the administration bets other countries will do business with it -- and bow to its demands when necessary.

That applies to Iran, and also to other global hot spots, chiefly North Korea. As Trump made clear, administration officials have never bought the argument that reneging on the Iran deal would weaken its position with North Korea.

“I don’t think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans anymore,”’ Pompeo told reporters earlier this month. “There are higher priorities that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay” in the Iran accord.

But Trump’s approach is fraught with risk. For one, North Korea is already believed to have produced dozens of nuclear weapons, while Iran doesn’t yet have that capability. And in agreeing to meet with Trump, North Korea still hasn’t committed to anything concrete -- or anything that it hasn’t promised in the past.

With the president’s Iran move, the U.S. now finds itself isolated from key European allies -- chiefly Germany, the U.K. and France -- and may struggle to muster support for the ambitious sort of sanctions that compelled Iran to shut down its nuclear program in the first place. Moments after Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested his country would continue to abide by the agreement while adding that it was now an accord between Iran and the five other countries participating -- not the U.S.

Losing a Window

In addition, the international community may lose its window into Iran’s nuclear program if the Islamic Republic eventually decides to abrogate the deal and kick out the international inspectors who have so far been able to ensure that the country was complying with it. That’s always been one of the key questions with any possible North Korea deal: how to verify that it would truly give up the weapons it already has and doubtless has hidden in many locations.

Trump’s Iran-Deal Pullout Risks Blow to U.S. Economy From Oil

“This ill-conceived policy is destined to backfire,” David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “If anything, pulling out of the deal and talking about regime change will undermine Iranian moderates and result in a government that is less to U.S. liking.”

But for Trump, the decision to withdraw from the Iran accord amounts to a gamble that the costs will be too high for Tehran to start chasing nuclear weapons again, even if the deal is dead. In Trump’s eyes, the U.S. is too powerful for Iran, already hobbled economically, to plunge back into the diplomatic and trade isolation that would come if it restarts its centrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

So, too, with allies in Europe and the rest of the world, the president’s thinking goes: European companies won’t risk new U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran.

“Iran’s leaders will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal, and that’s fine -- I’d probably say the same thing,” Trump said. “But the fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people.”

The big question, for critics and supporters of Trump alike, will be what the longer-term strategy will be. The administration, including Trump and Pompeo, have repeatedly said that pulling out of the Iran agreement won’t mean the end of diplomacy.

High Bar

What will follow, they say, will be an initiative for a new, stronger agreement that addresses all the issues -- such as ballistic-missile development and Iran’s regional behavior -- that were left out of the original accord.

That’s a high bar. The 2015 nuclear deal took years of negotiations, and deliberately didn’t include many of the broader issues Trump cited as weaknesses in the deal in order to address the international community’s biggest worry: Iran’s nuclear program. As a result of Trump’s move, critics say the U.S. could find itself losing influence over what happens next.

“The governments of Iran, Russia, and China will seize this opportunity of self-imposed U.S. isolation to continue major weapons sales, deepen economic ties, and further challenge the United States and Europe not only in the Middle East but in other areas like North Korea,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who’s the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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