Don’t make the same mistake on Iran that Bush made on North Korea

The Union of Concerned ScientistsPress reports say President Trump will likely not certify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal in the near future, setting up a situation in which Congress can reimpose sanctions and effectively end US compliance with the deal.

Since the agreement includes several other countries, that would significantly weaken the deal but would not end it.

Still, that the United States would undermine the agreement—which administration officials acknowledge Iran is abiding by—is incredibly short-sighted. It goes against the advice of President Trump’s senior advisors and essentially the whole US security policy community. It erodes US credibility as a treaty partner in future negotiations.

Killing the deal would throw out meaningful, verified limits on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons because the president doesn’t think the agreement goes far enough.

The US did this with North Korea, and it was a disaster

The US did this before—with North Korea—and that led to the crisis we are in today.

In 2001, when the Bush administration took office, there was an agreement in place (the Agreed Framework) that verifiably stopped North Korea’s production of plutonium for weapons and put international inspectors on the ground to make sure it was not cheating. This stopped Pyongyang from making fissile material that could be used for dozens of nuclear weapons, and provided the world valuable information about an intensely opaque country.

Also by 2001 North Korea had agreed to stop ballistic missile tests—which was readily verified by US satellites—as long as negotiations continued. This was also meaningful since it would cap Pyongyang’s missile capability at a range of only 800 miles.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who was closely involved in the negotiations with Pyongyang, has said he believes at that point the United States was a couple months from reaching an agreement that would have ended the North’s nuclear and missile programs. This was years before North Korea had done any nuclear tests or long-range missile tests.

Instead of capturing these important restrictions and building on them, the Bush administration—like Trump today—argued these limits were flawed because they did not go far enough to reign in the whole range of activities the United States was concerned about. Bush stopped the talks and eventually let the constraints on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs fall apart, bringing us to where we are today: facing a North Korea with hydrogen bombs and long-range missiles.

One reason the Bush administration gave for stopping implementation of the Agreed Framework was that Pyongyang had a fledgling uranium enrichment program that was not captured by the agreement. US negotiators knew about that program in the 1990s, and were watching it, but decided that ending Korea’s operating plutonium-production capabilities and getting inspectors on the ground was the crucial first step, and with that in place the uranium program could be addressed as a next step. The Agreed Framework was not meant to be all-encompassing—it was an important, logical step toward solving the bigger problem that was too complex to be solved all at once.

The Iran deal was similarly seen by those negotiating it as a meaningful, achievable step toward solving the bigger issues that could not be addressed all at once. And it has been successful at doing that.

Drifting toward disaster

In the case of Iran, as well as North Korea, President Trump is taking provocative steps that go against the advice of his senior advisors—and in many cases simply defy common sense. The stakes are extremely high in both cases. Dealing with them requires an understanding of the issues and potential consequences, and a long-term strategy built on realistic steps and not magical thinking.

If Trump de-certifies the Iran agreement, he will be tossing the fate of the deal to Congress. Congress needs to heed the advice the president is not taking. That means it should listen to Secretary of Defense James MattisGen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; and others who believe it is in the best interests of the United States to continue to support the agreement.

We find ourselves in a situation in which the whims of the president are escalating conflicts that potentially put millions of lives at risk and create long-term security risks for the United States, and no one appears to have the ability to reign him in and stabilize things. That situation should be unacceptable to Congress and the US public. If this situation continues, it could go down as one of the darkest periods of US history.