The Iranian deal and US foreign policy.

As expected, President Trump has pulled out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,and reactions ran the spectrum. Pulling out of JCPOA has be called an act of “vandalism,” a “disaster,” and according to Bernie Sanders, “has put America on the path to war.”

The goal of the deal was to halt the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In exchange for stopping its program, as well as shipping its enriched uranium abroad and allowing inspections, Iran had 100 billion dollars unfrozen and would be given permission to engage with the world economy, sanction-free.

Trump objected to the deal because the more intrusive measures retarding Iranian nuclear progress expire after 10 years. He objected to Iranian behavior because that they were testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and building a military network in Syria. Apparently, both of these warranted a withdrawal.

For the record, I think it was a bad deal but not because of the reasons raised by Trump. The Iran deal was bad because it only addressed Iran’s nuclear program and not the source of their nuclear ambitions.

There are number of explanations for why states seek nuclear weapons, but the historical record of nuclear proliferation is clear. As of today, there are 9 nuclear states. What each state had in common when they initiated their program was their security environment. Each and every state that has successfully gone nuclear was at one time a threatened state which could not outsource its protection to a more powerful ally. Non-threatened states that can go nuclear, such as Norway or Mexico, do not need them. States without the material or knowhow, such as Tanzania or Laos, for obvious reasons never do either. Threatened states which can outsource its security to a reliable ally, such as West Germany, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea, also do not acquire the bomb.

The conditions that convince a state to embark down the costly and controversial path towards nuclear weapons apply to Iran perfectly.

Since 1979, the state of Iran has had to exist in a highly unstable and hostile security environment. They have a Sunni regime to both the left (Saudi Arabia) and right (Pakistan), one of which is nuclear. Until 2002, they had a Baathist regime which they fought a bloody 8 year war against. And then there is the United States, which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq government, has upended three neighboring regimes in the last 15 years, supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and on a routine basis openly debates if it should attack Iran. Iran’s only benefactor, Russia, is viewed skeptically and considered unreliable. Frankly, when Iran looks beyond its borders, it sees a deeply hostile environment with itself in the center, largely alone.

This environment is rarely appreciated by the United States and is why the Iranian program makes perfect sense from a security perspective.

To note that there are structural reasons as to why Iran pursues nuclear weapons doesn’t excuse the government’s behavior. Iran is a terrible regime and routinely violates the basic human rights of its citizens, especially those already vulnerable, such as women and homosexuals. But that has nothing to do with their nuclear program. The issue is that American foreign policy is contradictory. America simultaneously pursues both regime change and denuclearization in Iran. The more the United States seeks to reform the domestic politics of Iran, the stronger the regime’s demand for nuclear weapons grows. Until this contradiction is sorted out, no treaty will be of any real value.

Deciphering Kim Jong Un’s Motives

Trump should take a cue from President Richard Nixon. In preparing for his historic meeting with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1972, Nixon made sure he understood how to play the game by thinking about his opponent’s aims. On a piece of paper, he outlined what Mao wanted, laid them out against the goals of the United States, and then mapped out areas of potential agreement. Trump should do the same, thinking strategically about the motivations of all the summit’s key players: North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. So what is it, then, that they really want?

the author then notes..

The other key item on Kim’s agenda is a relaxation of economic pressure. The Trump administration’s sweeping sanctions played a role in bringing the North Korean leader to the table, but it is also likely that Kim knew he would be sanctioned after he threatened the United States with his Hwasong-15 ICBM test last December. Although North Korea’s ultimate goal is for the United States to end its unilateral sanctions, it’s not an absolute necessity since China is likely to soften its own pressure once the negotiation process is under way—no small gain for Kim given that China accounts for 90 percent of North Korean external trade. Tactically, Kim will look for dramatic gestures and a slow-rolling “action-for-action” approach to negotiations that will drag things out until he is ready to escalate again (a well-established pattern that senior regime defectors like Hwang Jang Yop once predicted will continue into the future).

This will be very interesting to see how this drama unfolds. I don’t read too much into the recent threat of NK threatening to cancel the summit. Trump is, after all, just as erratic in the foreign policy realm. Just ask Tillerson.

Frankly, I can’t ever imagine that NK will denuclearize. I assume this most likely an attempt to weaken the economic coalition (mostly China and South Korea) which is clearly starting to bite into the North’s economy.

The author is  and you can read the rest here.

Is North Korea balancing against China?

HONG KONG — The immediate causes of the recent diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula are well known: stronger international sanctions against North Korea, approved by even China and Russia, and President Trump’s bellicose response to the recent intensification of nuclear and missile tests under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader since 2011.

 

But a more fundamental driver is being overlooked: China’s growing ambition to dominate East Asia. Mr. Kim’s apparent move to reconcile with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, is above all a gambit to get closer to America to keep China in check. He hopes to reduce North Korea’s overarching economic dependence on China and curb Beijing’s aspirations to control the future of the Korean Peninsula. After another surprise meeting between Mr. Kim and President Xi Jinping of China on Tuesday, the second in two months, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday that North Korea would release three American prisoners.

Could this be a new aspect of the pivot?

The author is Jean-Pierre Cabestan and you can read the rest here.

Israel the reckless driver.

Reports this morning are that Israel directly attacked Iran in Syria.

Here is reporting from the WaPo.

Confrontation between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria sharply escalated early Thursday morning as Israel said Iran launched a barrage of 20 missiles toward its positions in the Golan Heights.

Heavy military jet activity, explosions and air-defense fire could be heard throughout the night in the area. An Israeli military spokesman said the rockets were fired by Iran’s Quds Force, a special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, marking the first time Iranian forces have ever fired directly on Israeli troops.

This is typical reckless driving by our ally Israel and I suspect a consequence of pulling out the Iran deal. Reckless driving is the unintended consequence of America assuming the defense responsibility of a foreign country. States that receive American defense guarantees will have an incentive to be more aggressive in their foreign policy had they no such assumption that America would step in if they got themselves into serious trouble.

Because these states do not burden all of the costs of their actions, they act more aggressively.

We saw this in Yemen with Saudi Arabia.

We are now seeing it with Iran in Syria.

Bibi’s role

“His worldview is very clear,” said Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist who has long covered Mr. Netanyahu. “Iran is Nazi Germany. Israel is England. He is Churchill and America is America. His main goal has been to persuade Roosevelt to get into a conflict that will crush Iran. It didn’t work with Obama. But with President Trump he sees a golden opportunity.”

 

Mr. Shavit added that Mr. Netanyahu sees Iran as both dangerous and fragile, like the weakening Soviet Union that Ronald Reagan confronted, and wishes for a similar American approach to it: very assertive American diplomacy and sanctions that exploit Iran’s weakness to eliminate its danger.

The rest can be read at the NYT.

Why Trump supports diplomacy with North Korea but not Iran.

In the case of North Korea, the hurdles preventing the United States from pursuing its own best national interests and engaging with Iran do not pop up. There is no equivalent of MEK or AIPAC lobbying the White House on behalf of North Korea; there is no North Korean version of Sheldon Adelson to obstruct a push for peace with Pyongyang. North Korea presents President Trump with the opportunity to achieve success where his predecessors could not; a possible motivating factor for the president. When discussing North Korea, the president often throws the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations under the bus by voicing that the issue should have been handled long ago. Unlike Iran, the issue of North Korea has not galvanized a large and well-funded institutionalized policy sector devoted to curtailing engagement with Pyongyang. This provides room for US policy on North Korea to more accurately reflect US interests. For the Trump administration, this means that beyond the president’s showmanship and impulse to meet with Kim Jong-un, diplomacy can be given a chance with the hermit kingdom.

I do not understand the argument here.

  1. Trump is trying diplomacy with both Iran and NK. Pulling out of the Iran deal is still a form of diplomacy, albeit not smart in my opinion.
  2. These groups usually lobby congress, not the President.
  3. Why is their anti-Iran lobbying effective post 2016 but not prior?

The obvious reason Trump doesn’t like the deal is because it’s flawed and it was not negotiated by Trump but inherited. If we had an Asian JCPOA I suspect that he would be doing the same thing.

If the author is convinced that it is local politics and interest groups which explain Iran and not Korea, the more interesting question would be why there is no significant South Korean interest groups lobbying for/against a deal.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Boris Johnson on the Iran deal

Do not forget how this agreement has helped to avoid a possible catastrophe. In his address to the United Nations in September 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, rightly warned of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. At that moment, Iran’s nuclear plants held an estimated 11,500 centrifuges and nearly seven tons of low-enriched uranium — totals that would rise to nearly 20,000 centrifugesand eight tons of uranium.

 

Had the leaders of the Islamic Republic decided to go for a nuclear arsenal, they would have needed only a few months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for their first bomb.

 

The situation was even more worrying because, month by month, Iran was installing more centrifuges and building up its uranium stockpile. But under the deal, Iran has placed two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage and relinquished about 95 percent of its uranium stockpile. The “break out” time has been extended to at least a year — and the agreement is designed to keep it above that minimum threshold.

 

Moreover, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been given extra powers to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities, increasing the likelihood that they would spot any attempt to build a weapon.

 

Now that these handcuffs are in place, I see no possible advantage in casting them aside. Only Iran would gain from abandoning the restrictions on its nuclear program.

It is a good piece and essentially argues that should build off of JCPOA and not “tear it up.”

It was printed in the NYT which can be read here.