The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Trump kills the Iran deal, he may give the world another Rocket Man

North Korea’s nuclear program accelerated after a 1994 deal died. (Kcna/EPA-EFE)

President Trump made quite the scene at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. He didn't bang his shoe, as Nikita Khrushchev did in 1960, or wear a pistol like Yasser Arafat in 1974. But in his own way, Trump unsettled the audience in the room and those watching on television with an extraordinary, bellicose speech.

The early headlines focused on his mocking of Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man" and his warning that the United States would "totally destroy North Korea" if provoked. But perhaps more worrisome was Trump's veiled threat to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which he referred to as "an embarrassment" and "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into." Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded with a threat of his own: "If, under any conditions, the United States chooses to break this agreement . . . it means that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country."

It's all very reminiscent of when the United States sought to walk away from a nuclear agreement with North Korea in 2002, squandering the best opportunity to forestall North Korea's nuclear program. And if Trump refuses to certify Iran as being in compliance with the deal by the next deadline, Oct. 15, the result may be the same: Another country with long-range nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States.

The deal made with Iran in 2015 is remarkably similar to the agreement negotiated with North Korea in 1994 — in its gen­esis, its concept and the political resistance it has met.

The stories begin with nuclear ambitions. In both cases, those ambitions were revealed through strong U.S. intelligence capabilities in tandem with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. In both cases, the sensitivity of IAEA techniques, such as environmental sampling, caught the governments by surprise, revealing far more about their nuclear programs than Pyongyang and Tehran ever anticipated.

Both North Korea and Iran froze their nuclear programs when they came under international pressure. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. The programs were detected in their infancy, with no guarantee of technical success and every possibility that the United States would use its overwhelming conventional power to stop them.

There are some differences, of course. North Korea was pursuing a plutonium-based program, while Iran’s main focus was on enriching uranium using centrifuges. The United States and North Korea negotiated an agreement quickly. The Agreed Framework was signed in Geneva in 1994, a scant two years after the crisis erupted. By contrast, concerns over Iran dragged on for years, with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed only in 2015 — 13 years after the revelation of covert facilities to enrich uranium.

Yet both agreements presented a similar fundamental bargain: lifting international isolation in exchange for a halt in weapons work. Both countries accepted international inspections. And both would be able to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear power, though under extraordinary safeguards.

The agreements produced parallel reactions in the United States, particularly among those who wanted to maintain international pressure on Pyongyang and Tehran for other reasons, such as concerns about their human rights records or the threats they posed to their neighbors. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the agreement with North Korea “appeasement,” a term of abuse he defended in reference to the Agreed Framework and later to negotiations with Iran.

The agreements also suffered similar efforts at sabotage. Congressional Republicans fought against the United States fulfilling its commitments to North Korea, resulting in delayed deliveries of heavy fuel oil, just as congressional Republicans have pushed for the reimposition of certain sanctions and have attempted to discourage businesses from investing in Iran. The point was not the pain caused by late fuel shipments or the inconvenience of sanctions, but a determined effort to maintain the isolation of both countries.

Nor have opponents been above making false claims about noncompliance, right down to twin stories about underground nuclear facilities in both countries that turned out to be bunk.

Of course, neither agreement resolved all our problems with either country. Neither deal prohibited the development or testing of missiles, which presented an increasing threat to the United States and its allies. In North Korea, there were also indications of a secret uranium enrichment program purchased from Pakistan.

The Clinton administration attempted to address these problems through what was called the Perry Process — the notion that the Agreed Framework needed to be buttressed by additional diplomatic measures, starting with a verifiable end to North Korea’s missile programs. President Bill Clinton came tantalizingly close to a missile deal before the chaos of the 2000 election derailed the agreement. This is, in fact, extraordinarily similar to the course of action that some Republicans have counseled for the Iran deal — although with partisanship being what it is, they surely would not appreciate the compliment.

The incoming George W. Bush administration initially seemed poised to pick up where Clinton left off. But when new intelligence suggested that North Korea’s enrichment efforts were further along than previously believed, those in the new administration who opposed the agreement saw an opportunity. “This was the hammer I had been looking for,” John Bolton, who served as an undersecretary of state at the time, would write in his memoir, “to shatter the Agreed Framework.” The language is telling: Bolton and his allies always intended to walk away from the deal. In this way, too, the opposition to both agreements is the same. It is unyielding.

Of course, we know what happened. By October 2006, North Korea had resumed long-range missile tests that had been paused during the Perry Process and conducted its first nuclear explosion. The Bush administration seemed to realize that it had made a mistake (although it wouldn’t admit as much). It proposed a stripped-down version of the Agreed Framework it had abandoned, including aspects that Bush had fiercely criticized: freezing North Korea’s nuclear programs rather than immediately dismantling them and agreeing in principle to supply North Korea with a nuclear reactor for energy purposes.

The North Koreans may have been willing to trade away the possibility of nuclear weapons for promises of better relations. After the first nuclear weapons test, however, the window on denuclearizing North Korea began to close. Bush and then President Barack Obama each tried to reach an agreement with Pyongyang, but those efforts collapsed for many reasons that leave enough blame to go around.

It is far easier to persuade a country to abandon nuclear weapons it does not have. That is why the Obama administration threw itself into finding a solution to a not-yet-nuclear Iran. When asked about the festering problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the administration had little to offer other than to point to its efforts to stop Tehran from following suit.

And so here we are. Trump is faced with precisely the same choice as Bush — although with one important difference. Unlike North Korea, with its covert uranium enrichment program, Iran remains in compliance with the agreement signed in Vienna. The IAEA is absolutely clear on this fact, and Trump has twice certified that Iran is in compliance. And yet, like Bolton in 2002, there are those who are simply looking for a hammer.

Many administration officials must realize this would be a mistake. There is no possibility of renegotiating the agreement with Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others have stood by the president, making a public show of their dislike for the agreement while reportedly pressing Trump in private to retain it. This, too, is a familiar tale. During the Bush administration, Colin Powell employed the same mix of public criticism and private encouragement to preserve the Agreed Framework. But he was terribly wrong about his ability to influence the president. The deal collapsed, and today we have an arsenal of nuclear-armed North Korean missiles to show for it.

If Trump abandons the agreement with Iran, as he seems poised to do, there is every chance that the story ends in precisely the same way, with yet another state hostile to the United States bristling with nuclear-armed missiles. Really, one Rocket Man is enough, don’t you think?

Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

Read more from Outlook and follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.