Withdrawing from the Iran Deal Sent the Right Message to North Korea

Defenders of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic is formally known—have insisted that President Trump’s decision to withdraw has undermined Washington’s credibility when it comes to negotiations with Pyongyang. But they have it backward, argues Elliott Abrams, as demonstrated by the collapse and still-uncertain fate of the U.S.-North Korea summit:

Logic suggests that what Kim Jong-Un really wanted from the new administration was a JCPOA of his own. That is, he wanted a nuclear deal that was time-limited by sunset provisions, that permitted him to keep on developing better and better missiles, and that required only that he suspend his nuclear work for a short period of years. Such a deal would legitimize the North Korean nuclear program and Kim would see sanctions lifted and major economic benefits.

No wonder he wanted such a deal. . . . President Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA was a critical prelude to the summit from the American point of view. Kim had to be fully disabused of the notion that such a deal was even remotely available. The best he could hope for was a step-by-step agreement, in which he was not required to end his nuclear program entirely on day one, and instead was rewarded for each serious step he took.

When the Libya example was mentioned [by members of the administration], I do not think Kim really believed that . . . American officials hoped to see him dragged through the streets and killed while his country underwent terrible violence and divisions, [as some commentators suggested, having in mind the fate of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011]. Rather, the “Libya model,” [a reference to Qaddafi’s dismantling of his nuclear program in 2003 and 2004], calls for complete denuclearization at the inception; it was not a long, step-by-step process. For Kim, that was bad enough. . . .

No one who has ever worked on North Korea negotiations could be surprised by what North Korea did [last week]. The surprise might be that U.S. policy was tougher and more realistic than it has been under the last several administrations.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran nuclear program, North Korea, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy


When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin