The Art of the Deal? Obama’s With Iran Was Much Better Than Trump’s With North Korea
The Singapore statement pales even in comparison with the interim, preliminary Iran deal signed by the U.S. and other world powers in 2013.
ISTANBUL — One was the result of 12 years of painstaking negotiations over two U.S. presidential administrations and three changes of government on the other side, with the U.N. Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and leaders from the capitals of half a dozen countries actively involved.
The other was hammered out by two beefy guys with bad hair during the equivalent of a long layover in Singapore.
It may be unfair to compare the 159-page Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, signed by Tehran and world powers in 2015, to the barely two-page Singapore declaration penned by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, which is supposed to kick off the process of a deal.
But the Singapore statement, which has been praised by Trump supporters and conservative pundits on cable television, also pales dramatically in comparison to the interim deal that Iran, the U.S. and other world powers signed in 2013.
That four-page document, called the Joint Plan of Action and signed in Geneva on November 24, 2013, ultimately paved the way for the JCPOA, which arms control experts generally regarded as an imperfect but effective way of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but Trump repeatedly has called the “worst deal” ever.
Republicans hostile to Barack Obama blasted the Iran deal as appeasing a brutal regime. In contrast, pundits on Fox News lauded Trump for his diplomatic prowess in meeting with North Korea’s leader.
“If it was a Democratic president he or she would have been heavily criticized for just sitting down with Kim Jong Un,” said Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The Singapore statement is a very basic framework document that sets out the goals for a future negotiations. It is not a deal. It is not a plan. It is not a clearly spelled out a set of steps.”
To the cheers of conservatives in Washington and U.S. allies the Middle East, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last month, saying that the agreement failed to serve U.S. interests. He vowed to pressure the other signatories to abide by unilateral American sanctions in order to pressure Tehran into signing onto a “better deal.”
Trump also hopes to best his predecessors by drawing nuclear-armed North Korea into a comprehensive deal that will denuclearize the Korean peninsula and lower tensions across northeast Asia. But critics say that in contrast to the Obama administration’s approach to Iran negotiations, Trump’s has been too vague, has given away too many concessions already, and has excluded allies that could give Washington precious leverage.
“We see big headline statements that are going to be hard to assess,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and an expert on the Iran deal. “How you can measure performance, especially in North Korea?”
The document the U.S., Iran, E.U., Russia, and China signed in 2013 included specific actions to be undertaken by each party over the following six months, renewable by mutual consent if talks were progressing. “It required Iran to take some significant measures on its nuclear program that were verifiable and measurable in return for some minimal sanctions easing,” said Geranmayeh.
In contrast, the Singapore declaration — at least on paper (and what else is there?) — lacks any specific actions or dates, committing Pyongyang to merely “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
From the start of the Iran deal, negotiators understood that any vagueness could spell trouble. In the best case scenario, diplomats and experts spend the months after an initial declaration winnowing down overly broad statements into tangible changes that improve the security architecture of one of the most dangerous regions on the planet.
In a likelier scenario, Kim takes advantage of the lack of benchmarks and deadlines, banks his diplomatic successes, keeps his head down, and quietly builds up his arsenal of weapons while hoping Trump gets distracted.
In a worst-case scenario, imprecise language leads to misunderstanding. “This statement is so vague and poorly written, Trump might get spun up into believing the North Koreans are violating the deal and you get back into the cycle of escalatory rhetoric,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former Iran nuclear deal negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama sought to meet with Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, but only managed a phone call. Kimball praised Trump for meeting with Kim Jong Un, calling it a bold move that could set the tone for a future agreement. “It’s an effective way of cutting through the bureaucratic morass,” he said. “Sitting down with your adversary is not a concession.”
But others criticized Trump for giving Kim other concessions without getting anything in return. Though the deal didn’t stipulate anything about military exercises, Trump at a press conference suggested joint military operations with South Korea would be suspended during the course of any negotiations — this in exchange for a halt to nuclear tests experts say the North Koreans likely no longer need.
Trump also discussed lowering U.S. troop numbers, calling the continued American presence on the Korean Peninsula “too expensive,” and floated a possible White House invite for Kim. In the joint statement, Trump also “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea, which critics contend was far too big a promise, or just sloppy wording.
“In the past the U.S. talks about security ‘assurances’; they talk about a security ‘guarantee’ — it’s batshit crazy,” said Blanc. “I’m concerned about what appear to be largely unreciprocated concessions from the U.S. And I am more concerned that it genuinely does not seem that Trump understands that he has made concessions.”
Again, by comparison every step of the Iran deal was carefully calibrated, with easing of sanctions and freezing of assets coming only in return for verifiable steps in rolling back Tehran’s nuclear program. “There’s really no comparison between the highly structured organized way the Iran process was begun, and this,” said Blanc.
Iran’s nuclear program was for years under international scrutiny, with inspections by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, tightening as the JCPOA went into effect. North Korea, which withdrew years ago from the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has repeatedly welcomed and booted out inspectors, announcing that it would ramp up enrichment or test weapons. The Singapore declaration makes no mention of any role for the IAEA, which somewhat awkwardly released a statement announcing that it “stands ready” to help out on any inspections.
The lack of the IAEA participation underscores perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the Singapore declaration, as well Trump’s Gonzo-style diplomacy, compared to the carefully choreographed process that led up to Iran deal: a lack of cooperation by U.S. allies and other global players.
Under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, the U.S. worked closely with allies like the U.K. and France and other world powers in efforts to ratchet up pressure on Iran to get it to come to the negotiating table. In contrast, Trump seems to have repeatedly caught the crucial players in the North Korea talks off guard. Announcing the talks in the first place surprised China and Russia, key trading partners of North Korea, and the move to float a possible suspension of military exercises appeared to surprise U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
By failing to coordinate his moves with partners, Trump has foregone precious potential leverage over North Korea. Both Beijing and Moscow are praising the Singapore meeting, but instead of maximizing pressure on Pyongyang, China and Russia and others are scrambling to bolster ties with North Korea ahead of a potential U.S. rapprochement with the country.
Even Malaysia, which severed ties with North Korea last year over the bizarre chemical weapon assassination of Kim’s half brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport, quickly announced it was restoring relations with Pyongyang in the wake of the Trump deal. Though Trump said there would be no easing of sanctions for North Korea until it rolls back its nuclear weapons program, China is already agitating for economic relief.
“It was always going to be difficult to get China to pressure North Korea,” said Blanc. “As soon as Trump announced the summit without consulting the Chinese, the pressure was over.”