The Trump Administration has placed itself in front of two major foreign policy initiatives. Both involve nuclear weapons. Both are not, however, actually about nuclear weapons. On the one hand, Donald Trump is attempting to make peace with North Korea, which has a nuclear arsenal and has been technically at war with the US since 1950. Many of Trump’s supporters have, in fact, been prematurely praising the US President for the success of his peace initiative, even though he has yet to accomplish anything concrete. On the other hand, Donald Trump is attempting to unwind his predecessor’s foreign legacy as he seeks to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. With the future of the Iranian Nuclear Deal in the US President’s hand and a US-North Korea summit being planned, Trump is on the verge of reshaping US foreign policy in the Middle East as well as Asia.
Critics of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, including US President Donald Trump, see the landmark Obama-era agreement with Iran as a flawed giveaway. They argue the Iranian Nuclear Deal only delays Iran’s progress toward a viable nuclear bomb. The agreement only prevents Iran from taking a handful of technical, yet relatively easy, steps needed to acquire nuclear weapons. If the Iranian Nuclear Deal is solely about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the critics are more or less correct. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is more a bad deal that a good deal. If, however, one assumes the Iranian Nuclear Deal is also about building a relationship with Iran and working in conjunction with Iran as a regional power of the Middle East, the face value of the deal does not accurately reflect the true significance of the deal.
Just as working with North Korea has become a priority for the Trump Administration, working with Iran was a priority for the Obama Administration. Due to the Iraq War and Iran’s subversive intervention in the conflict, the George W. Bush Administration struggled, thus the Obama Administration reasoned a constructive US-Iranian relationship would help ensure US interests in the Middle East could be achieved. Like the Trump Administration’s views on North Korea, the Obama Administration was fairly indifferent to human right issues that cooperation with the Iranian government raised. The stated goal of the Iranian Nuclear Deal was to address the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons, so human rights issues were publicly deemed irrelevant. The Trump Administration has done the same.
What was important for the Obama Administration was building a working relationship with Iran and helping moderate political factions, such as that of President Hassan Rouhani, gain influence in Iran. Pessimists, of course, viewed the moderatization of Iranian politics as nothing more than a ploy to trick the world into giving hardliners within the Iranian government the economic boost they needed to secure their power and fuel a regional campaign of terror against their regional rivals. Optimists viewed the moderatization of Iranian politics as a long-term means of transforming the Iranian government. Today, changes in the nature of Iranian politics are difficult to see and analyze, but they may be materializing. By partnering with Russia in Syria and funding Houthi fighters in Yemen, however, Iran has been able to double down on its regional campaign to establish itself as the dominant power, but it has also committed its resources and constrained its ability to act elsewhere.
As such, if the President feels a working relationship with Iran would be beneficial to US interests, versus European, Israeli, or Saudi interests, he should view such a relationship as a priority. He should, therefore, either maintain the status quo with the Iranian Nuclear Deal or, should he feel the nuclear threat from Iran is an equal or greater priority, he should seek to strengthen the deal. It is the same as negotiating peace and building a working relation with North Korea. Donald Trump must, however, recognize the hazards are the same for North Korea as they are for Iran. Like Iran, North Korea is capable of putting on a convincing show that makes it look like the Kim regime is cooperating. Kim Jong-Un may say he seeks peace and denuclearization, but he is just as capable as the Iranian leadership when it comes to manipulating the meaning of words, circumstances, and treaty provisions. Like Iran, North Korea is unlikely to actually give up nuclear weapons or disarm, but a working relationships may well be enough of a benefit to continue with peace talks.
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