Tel Aviv — Although the focus this week was on the U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore, analysts say it is Iran that stands to lose the most if North Korea, its regional partner, fulfills its commitment to the United States to work towards “complete de-nuclearize of the Korean Peninsula.”
Even as President Donald Trump was agreeing to the request of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to suspend some military exercises between American and South Korean troops — Trump called them “provocative” — he was also warning that the “brutal” U.S. sanctions on Iran are about to resume.
“I hope that, at the appropriate time, after the sanctions kick in — and they are brutal what we’ve put on Iran — I hope that they’re going to come back and negotiate a real deal,” he told reporters.
Until then, analysts believe Iran will be weakened on the international stage.
“If the talks are successful and make progress, Iran will feel the pressure,” said Meir Javendanfar, a lecturer on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “The legitimacy and influence of Trump in the international arena will increase. This will boost his reelection campaign. Iran wants to see a weak and isolated Trump.”
Dore Gold, the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel’s Kan public radio, said that the summit marks a “bad day” for Iran.
Gold said that if the U.S. achieves de-nuclearization of Northern Korea, the agreement would serve as a better negotiating guideline for any future nuclear agreement with Iran. The current Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran places only partial restrictions on its nuclear program.
“This is a good day for Israel, because the Iranians are in a much weaker situation as a result of the achievements of the U.S. vis-a-vis North Korea,” he told the Radio.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed, “The Iranians are right to be worried.”
“If an agreement can be struck to de-nuclearize North Korea, it should be possible to try to have an agreement that prevents Iran from getting nuclear weapons permanently,” said Abrams, former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush. “The JCPOA did not do that. Any agreement with North Korea would be permanent and verifiable. … And if we get a deal with North Korea, we have a better chance of saying to the Chinese, the Russians and the Europeans [all signatories of the JCPOA] that we should get together and push for a stronger deal on Iran.”
Abrams said he is “not concerned about the lack of specificity [in the agreement signed Tuesday] right now; we’ll know in a few months. It could collapse, but maybe Kim wants a change.”
Any deal with North Korea will bear in mind the problems with the JCPOA, according to Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center. To avoid those problems, Trump is approaching these negotiations differently.
“Trump and North Korea have agreed to the de-nuclearization of the peninsula and now the president has turned it over to his professional staff and said, ‘Go get me that,’” she said, noting that this approach “loses the hubris of saying I know where all the pitfalls are.”
A pitfall in the Iran agreement is that the “Iranians would not allow us to inspect its military facilities,” she said. “The material Israel [recently] provided reveals that the Iranians turned over much of its nuclear program to its military.”
Trump’s approach, Bryen said, is one adopted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who “told [Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower to get him the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, and said, `You figure out how to do it.’”
Should a deal with North Korea be achieved, “Iran would lose a technology partner,” observed Jamsheed Choksy, a specialist on Iran and chair of the department of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University.
“If it does work out, Iran would be more isolated and won’t have the regional partner with whom it has worked for many decades to transfer knowledge and technology on nuclear weapons and missiles,” he said. “If North Korea comes in from the cold, it would make Iran even more of a rogue state.”
If the Trump administration can craft a deal with North Korea that ends its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and exacts a promise from North Korea not to support terrorism, the agreement “could be used as a model in negotiations with Iran,” Choksy added. “And if it works, Iran would feel more comfortable entering into a deal with us. North Korea is as much of an international pariah as Iran, and if Iran sees that a deal with North Korea is working — that North Korea is becoming stable and we are not attacking — Iran can be more confident that it can reach a deal.”
However, most experts agreed that it would be jumping the gun to expect that the Kim regime is ready to give up his country’s nuclear capability.
“I don’t think that de-nuclearization is going to happen,” said Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “In North Korean eyes, the nuclear weapons are the great equalizer. It has given them the leverage to reach this summit.”
Complete de-nuclearization of North Korea doesn’t seem like a reasonable outcome, agreed Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, in an interview with Israel Army Radio.
“Nuclear weapons and the ability to launch them at the U.S. are an insurance policy for Kim,” said Inbal. “It’s a naive assumption to think that he would give up on the one asset that ensures his regime’s survival and international standing in return for random declarations from the U.S. — especially in light of the U.S. retreat from the agreement with Iran.”
Despite the unlikely prospect for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, the de-escalation of tensions is a worthy goal in itself, according to experts.
However, the U.S. and the international community can’t treat North Korea the same way as Iran. Although both countries share a desire for nuclear weapons, recognize that possessing nuclear weapons has strategic value, and have deceived the international community, North Korea has already joined the club of nuclearized countries whereas Iran hasn’t crossed the line. That calls for a tougher policy against Iran to ensure it doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons, said Landau, thus requiring the international community to press for tougher sanctions, isolation efforts and demands for Iran’s denuclearization.
“The whole nuclear issue plays out differently for North Korea and Iran,” she said. “When you cross that line, you are in a new game. International actors have to deal with them differently. With regard to Iran, there’s still a chance that [nuclearization] can be stopped.”
Landau added that the “Trump administration has woken up the international community. The approach was very much needed because Iran was on the way to becoming North Korea.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.