In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the journalist Twitterverse has been aflame with accusations. Among the most common complaints: Trump has just ensured that North Korea will pursue a nuclear weapon with even more alacrity. The logic seems to go something like this: America, under President Obama, promised Iran that if they stopped developing nuclear weapons, we’d open up their economy; they didn’t ramp up their nuclear weapons program; the United States pulled out anyway, destabilizing the regime; the only guarantor of security, therefore, is the quick pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
This argument neglects the fact that the Iran nuclear deal was chock full of holes from the outset – it was created in order to leave Iran a path to a nuclear weapon while stabilizing their regime. This is, in fact, the key point: the only agreement Iran would have signed is an agreement predicated on the idea that Iran’s regime won’t fundamentally change its perspective on nukes.
In fact, only countries that are already predisposed to moderation give up their nukes – or at least sufficiently afraid of American might. No country can be bribed from a position of extremism to a position of moderation with a carrot. There are only four countries that had nuclear weapons and gave them up: South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. There is one more that was developing nuclear weapons and gave it up: Libya. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan didn’t develop nukes – they inherited them from the former Soviet Union, and they didn’t have the infrastructure to maintain them. They were also given serious security guarantees from the United States and Russia.
South Africa gave up its nukes in 1993, after developing six nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s. The South African President FW de Klerk gave up those weapons in 1993, and explained that he did so deliberately in order to end sanctions on South Africa – in order to stop its international isolation. “I wanted to end the isolation even before we finalized agrements through the constitutional negotiations,” de Klerk stated. “And one of the important things to achieve re-acceptance into the international community would have been to take an initiative, without any pressure from outside, to bring this program to an end…to dismantle our nuclear weapons and to prove to the world that we weren’t playing games, but that we were very serious about fundamental reform in South Africa.”
In other words, South Africa gave up its nukes as a sign of good faith before receiving assurances from the West.
The same was true of Libya. Muammar Qadaffi was deeply afraid that the United States would topple him in the same way we had toppled Saddam Hussein; in 2001, George W. Bush had used back channels to make exactly that threat apparently. Days before the United States invaded Iraq, Qadaffi announced that he would give up his nuclear program.
What did South Africa and Libya have in common? The leaders of those countries made pro-active moves to disarm. They weren’t bribed. They knew that if they didn’t disarm, they’d be putting themselves in the crosshairs of the world. In fact, one of the most important factors in the acceleration of the North Korean nuclear program wasn’t Trump’s revocation of the Iran deal, which just happened this week – it was the Obama administration’s decision to topple Qadaffi even after his disarmament.
So no, the death of the Iran deal won’t sink the possibility of a North Korean détente, if it ever existed. In fact, if Iran wanted to open its economy by giving up its nukes and ending its terrorist pursuits, all it would have to do is give up its nukes and its terrorist pursuits without a deal. They could do it anytime. They’re not, because they never intended to do so.