May 2018 has proven to be a time of disappointment, as hope that the United States can come to terms with Iran and North Korea first diminished and then disappeared. First, the United States announced that it has decided to unilaterally withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal – to protests from many other countries. Meanwhile, what had appeared to be a historic reconciliation between North Korea and the United States was stopped short as both countries now seem poised to return to the heated rhetoric of the summer of 2017. While the erratic policies and antics of Donald Trump are at least partly to blame for these developments, the reversals are also reminders that denuclearization is a hard path that is contrary to the vested interests of many political and social groups in both the West and the “rogue states.” These events also show that a slower but sustained policy focusing on rewards rather than demands for quick action and threats is more likely to succeed.
Kim Jong-Un’s backpedalling and the deterioration of the Iran nuclear agreement share one thing in common: the United States insists that these countries utterly destroy their nuclear capabilities as a precondition for serious diplomatic talks, without providing any concrete concessions in return. For the leaders of these two “rogue states,” this would put their countries, and more importantly themselves, in jeopardy without any perceivable benefits. If anything, from the perspective of these leaders, abandoning their nuclear aspirations will only increase the likelihood of American attempts to install pliable governments more amiable to Washington. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Libya. American Security Advisor John Bolton brought up the “Libyan Model” as an example of the successful disarmament of an authoritarian regime aiming to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). However, for leaders in Iran and North Korea, the death of Muammar Gaddafi cannot be divorced from the NATO air campaign which they believe was made possible because Gaddafi had signed away his WMDs in 2007. One can even raise the spectre of Saddam Hussein. Some activists like Noam Chomsky have long argued that the 2003 invasion of Iraq sent a message that the only reliable way for these regimes to survive is to possess credible deterrence, principally through nuclear weapons. Developing a warmer relationship with the West without significant credible deterrence, as Muammar Gaddafi did, will not forestall the Western urge to install a “liberal democratic” government accepting of Western economic and political interests.
In addition to threats to national security, domestic politics in Iran and North Korea also make the Trump Administration’s demand for complete denuclearization unlikely to achieve any significant results. The United States is essentially insisting that Iran and North Korea pay for the destruction of their own research. However, the United States is not guaranteeing anything in return other than the tentative possibility that it might start to engage these countries diplomatically. While such unbalanced exchanges are unlikely to sit well with any electorate, this is especially difficult for the leaders of Iran and North Korea to swallow. As in many developing countries, mastery of nuclear technology is a matter of great national pride for the country’s citizens, as it demonstrates their scientific prowess and level of development. Furthermore, both the regimes of Iran and North Korea have legitimized themselves partly on the basis of anti-American sentiment. Complete denuclearization just to get a seat at the peace table amounts to a definitive capitulation that would undermine their own legitimacy. This would not only arouse the anger of the hardliners in these countries but can potentially even drive political and diplomatic moderates into a more extreme camp and discredit any future opportunities for reconciliation. A call for “irreversible denuclearization,” as Trump calls it, is unrealistic and would fail unless some extremely significant under-the-table dealings occur.
What is needed is a slow, cautious, but maintained rapprochement between the United States and the leaders of Iran and North Korea. Any demand for what appears to be a unilateral surrender by one side would cause the entire process to grind to a halt. Agreements that create mutual benefit and leaders who can effectively communicate these benefits to their citizens will go much farther in lowering tensions and raise the likelihood of future progress on denuclearization. This approach, however, has already proven its weakness, ironically demonstrated by Donald Trump himself. One of the reasons for Trump’s political success is due to his ability to portray the JCPOA as an American capitulation to Iran. Another problem with a slow approach is that even at the best of times, the United States would have little ability to prod its allies to agree to it. In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s threats to unilaterally escalate the issue by launching a regional arms race if they do not get their way has contributed significantly to derailing any prospect of a lasting denuclearization agreement. Meanwhile, in East Asia, there is the question of how long Moon Jae-In would remain conciliatory if progress on disarmament is not considered to be moving fast enough and the South Korean electorate decides that a harder response is more appropriate. Finally, there is also the erratic behaviour of the United States’ current administration, and the question of how much its negotiating partners can trust the “world’s only superpower” when it seems to be going in a new direction every day.
These issues are pressing, and the road to controlling nuclear proliferation is going to be an uphill battle. However, from February to May 2018 there have been hints of the possibility of a peaceful outcome to the nuclear crises in both the Middle East and East Asia. This shows that checking the escalation of tensions and the spread of nuclear weapons is possible if there is enough will and empathy in the world.
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