The west may have been looking in all the wrong places for Iran's nuclear weapons development activity. Image: iStock

As North Korea gets closer to being able to strike the United States with a long-range ballistic missile, there is a correlation between the former North Korean nuclear agreement delivered by president Bill Clinton and the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by president Barack Obama.

Some of America’s allies are worried the US will either strike North Korea or they will have to live with an unstable nuclear regime in Pyongyang. After President Donald Trump’s tough address to the United Nations General Assembly this month, in which he accused Iran of being a “murderous regime,” many are left wondering if Trump is foreshadowing what is to come for Iran. Observers in northeast Asia are wondering whether the US will allow Iran to go nuclear, a fear shared by Israel and Gulf state allies, as it pertains to North Korea as well.

These concerns are not misplaced – especially since Trump has said he has made a decision about whether to stay in the Iran deal or to decertify the agreement.

In 1994 the Clinton administration signed the “Agreed Framework” that would “freeze and then dismantle” North Korea’s nuclear program and promised Asian allies – specifically South Korea – that they would be “better protected.” The deal collapsed because of North Korea’s duplicity and failure to keep its commitments. This failed agreement led to North Korea acquiring a nuclear bomb and it is now coming closer to having a submarine-launched nuclear missile.

The question the US and Trump will need to ask is whether the flaws in the Agreed Framework mirror those of the current one with Iran.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that unless the “sunset clause” was taken out of the agreement, then Iran would become the next North Korea.

The geopolitical ramifications of the US pulling out of the Iran deal, which was agreed by all five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, could sour diplomatic relations further with Europe, Russia and China. Iran to its credit has kept to the letter of the agreement, but what geopolitical actions has it taken since the deal took place? And will US efforts that have failed in the past to stop North Korea from attaining nuclear weapons prove any more successful with Iran?\

Iran’s young population is eager to join the international community, and this could possibly make the current and future regimes more susceptible to pressure and incentives

One ray of hope is that the Iranian population is more dynamic, educated and open than North Korea’s. Iran’s young population is also eager to join the international community, and this could possibly make the current and future regimes more susceptible to pressure and incentives. But make no mistake – no Iranian government is going to give up its nuclear ambitions unless properly motivated, either militarily with a pre-emptive strike or diplomatically and economically with a complete welcome into the US-centered “world community” with a full removal of all sanctions.

In the meantime, aided by Hezbollah, Iran is now on a march through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria aimed at challenging the current US-backed hegemony. This strategic expansion has allowed the Iranian military to modernize by purchasing new arms from Russia and China, while allegedly expanding its cyber capabilities and organizing more than 50,000 Shiite militia fighters to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria.

Meanwhile, Iran’s growing ballistic-missile program has its opponents in the Middle East on edge. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned in early August in an address to Iran’s parliament that “Iran could restart its nuclear program in a matter of hours” if the US imposed further sanctions in violation of the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal or backed out of it altogether. These fears led General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, to claim this year in testimony to the US Congress: “Iran is the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies.”

While Trump has said he has made his decision on the nuclear deal, administration officials are still working on a “comprehensive policy review” of Iran and the supposed threats posed by Tehran. The fear is that whatever strategy emerges on US recertification of the nuclear deal, it won’t stop Iran on its march toward a “Shia crescent” in the Middle East.

The precursor to Trump’s decision should be the evolving challenges coming from Iran and a response that protects the US and its allies. Otherwise, the myriad good and bad reasons to certify or decertify the nuclear deal will be lost in the confusion.

The US has an explosive decision to make in the coming months.

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Todd Royal

Todd Royal has a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University and has worked for Duke University. He is published by the U.S. Library of Congress on hydraulic fracturing and the geopolitical implications of expanded US oil and gas production. He is a consultant and writer on international geopolitical strategy, energy, and US state and local government.

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