Iran and the Trump-Kim Nuclear Summit

Update from AIJAC

June 15, 2018

Update 06/18 #03

This Update deals with the possible ramifications for the Middle East of the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in Singapore on Tuesday – with a special focus on how it might affect the efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

We lead with some post-Summit analysis from top Israeli national security expert Gen. Amos Yadlin, formerly IDF intelligence chief and now at Tel Aviv University. He argues that, from an Israeli point of view, the Summit could be positive if it allows the US to take some of its focus off Korea and return it to the Iran problem – but could be negative to the extent it may signal to the Iranians a US willingness to make concessions from the first stages of the negotiations. He also notes some important differences between the Iran and North Korean situations – particularly the reality that the US must remain engaged in the Middle East due to the need to ensure energy flows and the passage of commerce, while Korea currently poses the greater direct threat to the US. For Yadlin’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon discussing the implication of the summit for the Iran problem with former top US official Elliott Abrams – in a piece that appeared before the actual summit outcomes were known. Abrams makes the case that any outcome of the Summit would  have been a helpful warning signal to the rulers of the regime in Teheran about Trump Administration seriousness. It it had failed, it would have signalled that Trump would not agree to a bad deal, while an agreement calling for denuclearisation – which was the outcome, albeit with very vague wording – would signal that the Iranians have to agree to something similar, and nothing like the JCPOA which allowed Iran to continue full-scale nuclear work after some temporary delay, to be acceptable to the US. For Abrams’ argument, CLICK HERE

Finally, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy convened a forum shortly before the Summit highlighting the extent of North Korean proliferation to the Middle East and what can be done about it. Experts who spoke were Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former government expert on sanctioning North Korea; Kongdon Oh,  a resident staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and Jay Solomon, former chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. All three offer insights into Pyongyang’s proliferation to Iran, Syria and other Middle East states, and how this must be addressed in any nuclear deal with North Korea. For the well-informed views of all three, CLICK HERE.

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Article1

What the Trump-Kim summit could mean for Israel and Iran

With North Korea possibly coming to terms with Washington, former air force chief says Jerusalem hopes to push Tehran’s nuclear threat to top of agenda

By RON KAMPEAS

Times of Israel, 13 June 2018

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Amos Yadlin likes talking about the Begin doctrine, which calls for removing existential threats to Israel before they are manifest — maybe because he lived it twice.

As an Israeli Air Force pilot, Yadlin flew one of the planes that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, when Menachem Begin was prime minister. As director of military intelligence in 2007, Yadlin oversaw the operation that eliminated another nuclear reactor, this one in Syria.

Watching US President Donald Trump sign a statement on Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledging to achieve “complete denuclearization,” Yadlin again found himself in Begin doctrine mode. Now the head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, an influential think tank, Yadlin suggests that the Trump-Kim summit means America can refocus its attention on another major world nuclear threat. It’s the one that matters most to Israel: Iran.

But there are mixed messages as well in how quickly the meeting seemed to come together, and about what Tehran can expect if they also wish to negotiate.

Yadlin is in Washington, D.C., to meet with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that serves as a holding pattern for top Democratic former national security officials waiting out the Trump administration. (They met to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. Yadlin has met with Trump administration officials on other occasions.) He spoke to JTA about reasons for hope and trepidation following the historic summit in Singapore.

Institute for National Security Studies Chairman Amos Yadlin attends the Annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv January 23, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The Israeli view

The good news for Israelis, Yadlin says, is that “denuclearization will remove North Korea as the No. 1 US national security issue.” That’s welcome news because after a year and a half of rising US-North Korea tensions — with intimations of missile attacks on Guam, and Kim and Trump exchanging social media insults — Israel wants Iran to be the top US national security issue.

“Israel understands North Korea is more dangerous than Iran” to the United States, Yadlin said. “They have missiles that can reach the continental US, they do have nuclear weapons,” as opposed to Iran, which does not. “America shifted all of its resources, planning resources, to North Korea. In Israel, we want to elevate Iran to the place of North Korea.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made that connection in his statement on the summit, slipping in praise for Trump pulling out last month of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which swapped sanctions relief for a rollback in Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu commended Trump on the Singapore meeting with Kim and called it “an important step in the effort to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.”

“President Trump has also taken a strong stand against Iran’s efforts to arm itself with nuclear weapons and against its aggression in the Middle East,” he said. “This is already affecting the Iranian economy. President Trump’s policy is an important development for Israel, the region and the entire world.”

The bad news is that Trump appears to be making concessions from the get-go, a signal of what he may be prepared to do should Iran come around to renegotiating the nuclear deal that Trump just abandoned, and also a signal to Iranian leaders of what they can ask for if they play nice.

“One can claim that the fact that America has accepted a nuclear North Korea until it will be denuclearized” instead of demanding denuclearization before launching talks, “and we don’t know how many years until it will be denuclearized — there is some concern that if you gave concessions to the North Koreans, the same thinking can apply to Iran,” Yadlin said.

The Iranian view

The bad news for Iran’s leadership is that there’s good news for Trump.

“They are worried that Trump achieved not everything, but unlike the expectations he would fail with North Korea, he is succeeding, and this made him strong vis-a-vis Iran,” Yadlin said.

The spare page-and-a-half document signed by Trump and Kim, however, may be seen as encouraging in Tehran.

“The fact that there are no numbers or red lines or goals gives them some leeway to negotiate,” he said of the Iranian leadership.

Yadlin said the process with North Korea so far seems personality driven — Trump and Kim like one another, for now. He likened that dynamic to the chemistry between former Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that helped drive the 2015 deal that Trump reviles.

“What I’m amazed at is how much in some aspects, the Trump administration having been portrayed to be ‘anything but Obama,’ at the end of the day is behaving in a very similar way as far as logic and decision making,” he said.

Iran is not North Korea

Asked if Israelis were not concerned that Trump seemed eager to embrace North Korea’s demand that joint US-South Korea exercises cease — Trump called the war games “expensive” and “provocative” — Yadlin said Israel would not be overly concerned at Trump’s apparent ambition to pull the United States out of the peninsula for two reasons:

Firstly, Israel fights its own wars. The American involvement in the peninsula involves a risk to US lives — there are 30,000 US troops in South Korea — and decreasing direct American military involvement is key to Trump’s doctrine.

“Israel never asks America to shed blood for us in the Middle East,” he said. “This is not the case in Korea, where the United States fought a very bloody war. Israel is strong enough to cope with its traditional enemies in the Middle East.”

Secondly, the United States has vested interests (read: oil) in remaining in the Middle East. While Israel fights its own wars, it also appreciates the war games it performs with the US military as a deterrent to Iran. The exercises are a sign that Israel’s powerful ally isn’t going anywhere soon — or was a sign until Trump started talking about retreat.

But Yadlin said he does not expect the United States to substantially lower its Middle East profile, if only to protect its energy interests and a key passage for commerce between Asia and the West.

“America is not in the Middle East for Israel,” he said. “A superpower cannot give up on the Middle East.”

This November 29, 2017, file image provided by the North Korean government on November 30, 2017, shows firing of what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

North Korea poses the greater rogue nuclear threat to the United States because it possesses nuclear weapons and due to the range of its missiles, which are believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States.

But Iran poses a less tractable threat because unlike Kim, whose nuclear ambitions are a matter of self-preservation, Iran wraps its nuclear planning into its ambitions for regional hegemony.

“Iran has developed two strategic aims: You need a nuclear arm to immunize you in order to achieve regional hegemony using conventional arms,” Yadlin said, “and the conventional force aims to take Tel Aviv and Riyadh hostage so the nuclear arm won’t be attacked.”

Yadlin said this is how North Korea has operated, targeting Seoul with devastating conventional weapons as a means of deterring strikes on its nuclear capabilities. Israel is alarmed by Iran’s development of a similar devastating conventional missile capacity in Syria, where Iran is working with its ally, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, to prop up the Assad regime.

That brings Yadlin back to the Begin doctrine and preemption.

“It may apply to the advanced Iranian missile operation in Syria,” he said. “It could come to a level that threatens Israel not as an existential threat but just below it.”

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Article 2

What do the North Korean talks mean for Iran?

By HERB KEINON

Jerusalem Post, 12/06/2018

There will be few places in the world where you will find people paying closer attention to the Trump – Kim Jong Un meeting than in Tehran.

The eyes of the world will be directed toward Singapore on Tuesday when US President Donald Trump sits down for historic talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And there will be few places in the world where you will find people paying closer attention than in Tehran.

Because what happens in Singapore – whether Trump succeeds or fails to broker a deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arms arsenal – will have huge ramifications going forward if the US turns its full attention from disarming North Korea of nuclear capabilities, to doing the same for Iran.

An argument can be made that whatever emerges from the Singapore meeting will actually be good for Israel regarding attempts to denuclearize Iran.

That, at least, was an argument put forward last week by former US deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, though he did not frame it precisely in that manner.

Any outcome of the Singapore summit was going to provide some valuable lessons for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to former American senior official Elliott Abrams

Rather, Abrams said that if Trump succeeded in getting a deal – something he acknowledged is unlikely, though not inconceivable – “I assume Trump would turn around and say this is the kind of deal we want with Iran.”

And, Abrams said, it is most likely that if he does do a deal with North Korea, it will be a better deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was negotiated with the Iranians, and which Trump has repeatedly said was simply a “horrible” deal.

According to Abrams, it was no coincidence that Trump decided in May to withdraw from the JCPOA, just before beginning the negotiations with the North Koreans.

“I think withdrawing from the JCPOA was the essential predicate for negotiation with North Korea,” he said. “What did Kim really want? He wanted a JCPOA: a deal that says ‘we legitimize your nuclear program,’ you can have it, you can enrich, and you can develop missiles.”

Abrams said that the deal with Iran, and the deal that the North Koreans wanted, also put an end to a conventional arms embargo and ensured that eventually all the sanctions would disappear.

“That is what Kim wanted, and the president had to make clear to him at the outset that nothing remotely like that will be available,” Abrams said.

“Trump said in his campaign the JCPOA was the worst deal ever – he had to act on that.

Once he did, he could start the negotiation process with North Korea.”

Abrams said he did not know if an eye on the North Korean situation may have been one reason Trump ditched the JCPOA, but that it was crucial for the Americans to make clear to Kim that the type of deal former US president Barack Obama worked out with the Iranians was not anywhere near the table.

“The Iranians must be concerned about one thing,” Abrams said. “What if the US strikes a deal with North Korea that is a denuclearization deal.”

According to Abrams, if such a deal were indeed reached – a deal which stipulated that North Korea would really denuclearize – “I assume Trump would turn around and say that this is the kind of deal we want for Iran.”

If Trump could get this type of deal with the North Koreans, then it would be difficult for the Europeans or anyone else to say it is not possible to achieve the same thing with the Iranians.

And all of that, of course, would be good for Israel.

But what if Tuesday’s meeting in Singapore is a colossal failure? What if the two leaders leave without any deal or agreement, and are at even greater loggerheads after they shake hands than they were before? That too, Abrams said, would not be lost on Iran. What this would mean, he said, is that “Trump isn’t kidding when he says that he won’t sign a bad deal. It means that he got out of the Iran deal, and won’t sign a bad deal with North Korea.”

And if he won’t sign a bad deal, Abrams said, the Iranians will have to be asking themselves what the unpredictable US president will do to stop their nuclear drive. And although under the Obama administration they were not really concerned about an American military strike, under Trump they will never be able to be sure – a situation of uncertainty that, at least from Israel’s point of view, is also not all that bad.

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Article 3

North Korea in the Middle East: A Dangerous Military Supply Line

Anthony Ruggiero, Kongdan (Katy) Oh, and Jay Solomon

Policywatch, June 12, 2018

Pyongyang has long threatened U.S. regional allies and interests with military support for terrorists, militias, and hostile regimes. Can a potential bilateral deal sever these supply lines?

On June 7, Anthony Ruggiero, Kongdan (Katy) Oh, and Jay Solomon addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a veteran of Treasury and State Department programs tasked with countering North Korea. Oh is a resident staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and coauthor of North Korea Through the Looking Glass. Solomon is former chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.

ANTHONY RUGGIERO

Iran’s missile relationship with North Korea is robust—so much so that the Obama administration took the diplomatic risk of sanctioning Tehran for receiving materials from Pyongyang just one day after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was implemented. In announcing that designation, the Treasury Department noted that senior Iranian officials had worked with North Korea for several years. As Pyongyang develops more advanced weapons, the relationship will become even more attractive to Iran, particularly if the Kim regime manages to produce a functional ICBM.

A more controversial question is whether the two countries have a nuclear relationship. North Korea could give Iran blueprints, testing data, lessons learned, and centrifuges. No definitive information exists in the public realm regarding the status of Pyongyang’s enrichment efforts, but wherever they stand, Iran has the resources to buy assets from the program.

As for relations with Syria, reports that Bashar al-Assad is set to visit Kim Jong-un soon are not surprising. Although Israel destroyed Syria’s North Korean-built nuclear reactor in 2007, neither Damascus nor Pyongyang suffered any lasting consequences for their proliferation activity, so it has continued. They have cooperated on ballistic missile development, with multiple groups of North Korean technicians traveling to Syria and transferring special missile technology, including help with developing Scuds. Kim has also provided Syria with technology and materials used for the development of chemical weapons, such as acid-resistant tiles and associated valves, pipes, and cables.

Elsewhere, Pyongyang has formed export relationships with Persian Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and other U.S. partners that Washington may be hesitant to sanction. North Korean solid propellant for short- and medium-range missiles would be especially attractive to regional states and nonstate actors.

As it negotiates with the Trump administration, North Korea needs to come clean on all of its proliferation efforts. Pyongyang likely does not realize just how much the United States knows about its activities. Armed with copious intelligence data, American officials will usually be able to tell when their counterparts across the table are being honest, and to what extent they are serious about an agreement. North Korea has pledged to stop proliferating military technology in the past but continues to do it, so the administration’s demands will have to be more specific in order to obtain meaningful changes.

North Korea likely learned from the JCPOA that cheating on nuclear deals is permissible, that limited deals can be exploited, that it can push the envelope on nuclear issues to extract concessions, and that its military sites are off limits. Yet Washington has hopefully learned some lessons as well.

First, the administration needs to be prepared to walk away from the table if necessary. Second, it should understand that nuclear-focused deals do not solve broader strategic problems. Third, it should avoid phased denuclearization, insisting on the Libya model of denuclearization instead (while refuting accusations that it is invoking that country’s specter of regime change). Fourth, Washington should not give North Korea any relief until it makes real progress toward denuclearization. Yet if Kim is truly willing to commit to such progress, the administration should be prepared to negotiate “big for big.”

China and Russia, the world’s top sanctions evaders, are not partners in these negotiations. They no doubt expect the Trump administration to believe Kim’s promises, make concessions, and fall into the trap of phased denuclearization. In the end, though, Chinese and Russian companies could wind up bearing the brunt of U.S. sanctions. Although no sanctions regime is foolproof, American authorities can enforce them in new ways to increase their effectiveness. For example, Washington has already identified and sanctioned North Korean shipping networks, but it could go further and start intercepting the vessels directly.

KONGDAN OH

North Korea’s nuclear and missile relationship with Syria began during the reign of Kim Il-sung, and symbols of its depth abound, from the monument to the late ruler erected in Damascus to the numerous congratulatory remarks Assad sent when Kim’s son assumed power. As for relations with Iran, Pyongyang built them on a foundation of blackmail and anti-American geopolitics.

In 1997, a North Korean delegation met with the Israeli ambassador in Stockholm, explained that their country had successfully tested a satellite missile, and warned that Iran and other Middle Eastern states were interested in buying it. They asked Israel for one billion dollars in exchange for withholding the missile technology from its enemies. The Israelis declined to give cash, but they did offer humanitarian aid, agricultural technology, medicine, and other assistance worth even more than a billion dollars. Pyongyang refused the deal, explaining that it would rather violate the Geneva Conventions than be held to purportedly biased standards intended to serve the United States.

Today, North Korea is changing internally. Its citizens have around 3.7 million cell phones and can directly contact people in parts of South Korea, China, and Russia. Such contacts will inevitably raise questions at home about the regime’s ideology and legitimacy. Kim knows that he has to focus on economic development if his regime is to survive, but the Democratic People’s Republic remains a very cash-poor society with miniscule foreign reserves.

Therefore, Pyongyang will likely keep any nuclear promises it makes if the price is right. To be sure, the JCPOA withdrawal has likely convinced the regime that the United States is unreliable, so North Korean officials may be less willing to adhere to a deal signed with Washington. Yet given their dire economic situation, they may decide to put aside their distrust and uphold agreements for economic benefits.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s relationship with China is at a historic low. A few years back, President Xi Jinping sent an envoy to Pyongyang asking it to halt nuclear testing. Testing resumed shortly thereafter, though, producing tensions that persist today. Xi has met with Kim at least twice in recent months, but Chinese government mouthpieces have been very sarcastic and skeptical about the prospect of talks with Washington.

JAY SOLOMON

Stories about Pyongyang’s involvement in the Middle East have been floating around for years, from North Korean pilots fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to North Korean engineers visiting Iran during its war with Iraq, to Israel’s attempt at paying Pyongyang off as a way of preventing missile exports to the region. All of these stories are true, and the Kim regime continues to get away with such proliferation today.

In Syria, North Korea uses foreign shell companies to procure equipment for Damascus indirectly. These fronts have been found in Malaysia, Egypt, and across China, among other locations. The notion that Beijing is blind to such activities strains credulity. In essence, then, the international community’s ability to curb North Korean nuclear proliferation depends on political will in these front countries.
Today, almost every state in the Middle East has some link to North Korean military systems. In Yemen, the government acquired some of Pyongyang’s missile technology before the current war. As a result, the missiles that rebel Houthi forces are launching into Saudi Arabia may have input from North Korean sources—or Iranian sources, or both.

In retrospect, both the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to insist on a full accounting of Pyongyang’s proliferation activities. For example, the lack of such transparency led to the collapse of a 1994 framework agreement in which North Korea agreed to stop proliferating. Even today, the public is still learning the extent of North Korea’s technical assistance to Syria’s chemical and nuclear weapons program.

In negotiating with the Kim regime, the United States should take a few lessons from its JCPOA experience. That deal failed to resolve a host of important issues, and looming political transition in Washington greatly increased its risk of eventual collapse. Despite moving forward with the deal, the parties—not to mention rival camps inside the U.S. government—never completely agreed on sanctions issues, and the Obama administration dropped the matter of “possible military dimensions.” In short, international agreements of this sort are inherently political, so they should be put into treaties if they are going to stand the test of time.

This summary was prepared by Samuel Northrup.

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