Editorial: From Kim to Khamenei

Questions about whether the June 12 agreement signed by US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will, unlike previous broken promises, successfully lead to North Korean denuclearisation also have implications for Iran – another rogue state actor with unresolved nuclear issues.

The fact that Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, only a matter of weeks before the Korean summit can hardly be coincidental. It is clear that the Administration was aware Kim was watching.

In announcing the withdrawal and the resumption of nuclear sanctions on Iran and those who do business with it, Trump’s stated intention was to bring Teheran back to the negotiating table to fix a fatally flawed agreement that paved Iran’s way to developing nuclear weapons rather than decisively preventing it.

Indeed, the sunset provisions in the JCPOA allow Iran to break out to a nuclear bomb in 10-15 years, even if Iran chooses to abide strictly by the agreement. Meanwhile, the deal’s failure to deliver “anytime, anywhere” nuclear inspections, licensing of continued Iranian work on advanced centrifuges, and total disregard for Iran’s ballistic missile development, ensured that Iran could receive maximum economic benefit from the deal while sacrificing none of its nuclear weapon ambitions.

The withdrawal from the JCPOA signalled to Pyongyang that the US would not commit to any agreement that did not secure full and permanent denuclearisation. At the same time, the terms of the June 12 agreement with Kim signalled to Iran that, in return for a renegotiated deal which offered this, the Trump Administration may be willing to consider concessions that the previous US administration was not prepared to give – such as taking steps to bolster the Iranian regime’s stability and security. 

Trump’s June 12 agreement – essentially just a statement of intentions going forward – and the strategic policy toward Iran in the wake of the JCPOA withdrawal are certainly both fraught with risk and uncertainty. This is particularly the case given the rogue and repressive character of the Iranian and North Korean regimes – birds of a feather who have long been close collaborators on illicit weapons development.

Indeed, this special relationship is so egregious, so blatant, that the Obama Administration took the risk of a diplomatic flap by imposing sanctions on Iran for receiving missile technology from North Korea just after the JCPOA was signed.

While nuclear technology transfer from North Korea to Iran is highly likely though unproven, we know North Korea helped Syria construct a secret reactor in its own pursuit of a bomb – a project thankfully derailed in 2007 by Israeli F-16s before it could be completed.

North Korea’s proliferation to Syria extends to missile technology and chemical weapons as well. According to expert Anthony Ruggiero, who served in the US State Department in a top anti-proliferation role under the Bush and Obama Administrations, Syria and North Korea “have cooperated on ballistic missile development, with multiple groups of North Korean technicians travelling to Syria and transferring special missile technology, including help with developing Scuds… [as well as] technology and materials used for the development of chemical weapons, such as acid-resistant tiles and associated valves, pipes, and cables.”

There is every reason to believe that North Korea would be prepared to sell its nuclear technology to friends like Iran, given it already did so to the Assad regime, Teheran’s long-standing ally. Last year, while still CIA director, now US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said that “As North Korea continues to improve its ability to do longer-range missiles and to put nuclear weapons on those missiles, it is very unlikely, if they get that capability, that they wouldn’t share it with lots of folks, and Iran would certainly be someone who would be willing to pay them for it.”

The debate being played out in the media today over whether Trump’s moves over Iran and North Korea can succeed are too caught up in political controversies over the US President’s governing style and divisive personality. The US President has shattered the status quo in both arenas, but the bottom line remains, as ever, whether North Korea will completely denuclearise and whether Iran’s nuclear weapons program can be ended and not merely suspended, verifiably and conclusively.

Much will depend on what the US does next. The announcement of incipient new sanctions is already making a significant impact on Iran with numerous major companies already cancelling large investments – building pressure for a return to the negotiating table. Other signatories of the JCPOA and vested countries among the international community, including Australia, that have continued to support the JCPOA or are sceptical of reinstating sanctions, need to reconsider their positions.

They should do so because strengthening the Iranian nuclear deal is an imperative in its own right – and several world leaders and policymakers such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron have already recognised the importance of tightening the Iranian deal, and expanding it to also address Teheran’s rogue behaviour in other spheres, which is clearly the justified approach of the Trump Administration.

However, they should also reconsider their support for the JCPOA because it is an inescapable fact that North Korea cannot be expected to accept a more restrictive deal than the one applied to Iran.

Far-reaching denuclearisation is the right policy for Iran and North Korea equally, and is consistent with what the international community has applied to past illegal proliferators such as Libya, Iraq and South Africa. Regardless of opinions on his personality, Trump’s latest carrot and stick approach deserves to be given the best chance for success. This requires broad-based support for Iran sanctions today and cooperation with the US on systematic and real pressure to force Iran to agree to a deal that actually removes the long-term Iranian nuclear threat, and all the dire implications that would represent.