Visitors to a future Donald J. Trump presidential library may find a whole section dedicated to his demolition of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord: “worst deal ever”; “horrible” and “one-sided”; “major embarrassment”; “defective at its core.”
As Mr. Trump pursues North Korea’s denuclearization at the Singapore summit meeting scheduled for Tuesday, he risks being hoisted on his own hyperbole. By Mr. Trump’s own logic, any deal with the North has to be better, tougher, more comprehensive than the Iran accord. Even if the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is operating in good faith — a historically big if — that outcome is highly unlikely. Paradoxically, the best deal Mr. Trump can reach with North Korea more than likely will look like what Barack Obama achieved with Iran.
The Iran deal required Tehran — up front — to eliminate 98 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels well below weapons-grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The effect was to push Iran’s “breakout capacity” — the time it would take the regime to produce enough material for a single weapon — from weeks to over one year. A sweeping inspections regime would ensure Iran was making good on its commitments.
Mr. Trump argued the deal was “disastrous” because some of the limitations on Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing capacity expire over 10 to 25 years — even though the prohibition on Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and the inspections regime are permanent — and because the accord did not directly address Iran’s missile program, its malicious activities throughout the Middle East or its human rights abuses at home.
So what would the Trump standard mean if applied to Pyongyang?
Unlike Iran, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, the means to deliver them and the machinery to keep making them. According to published assessments, Pyongyang possesses around 60 nuclear warheads, dozens of ballistic missiles and a widely dispersed infrastructure that churns out enough fissile material for about six bombs every year.
If Mr. Trump were to abide by his own critique of the Iran pact, any deal with North Korea should eliminate the material, warheads and missiles it already has and, just as important, its ability to produce more — forever. That deal should be verified by an indefinite, intrusive inspections regime. And it should contend with Pyongyang’s other egregious activities, like providing weapons and technology to unsavory regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria and maintaining the world’s worst gulag state.
Mr. Trump himself has already walked back the fantasy that Mr. Kim will hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom in Singapore. The administration may find merit in an interim agreement that requires North Korea to disclose all of its programs, freeze its enrichment and reprocessing infrastructure under international monitoring and destroy some warheads and missiles in return for limited economic relief. That would buy time to negotiate a more comprehensive deal, including a minutely sequenced road map that will require sustained diplomacy. That’s the approach Mr. Obama took with Iran.
The administration may also discover that capturing everything we do not like about the Kim regime in one accord is a quixotic enterprise — prolonging the process, dividing us from partners with different priorities and giving Pyongyang more chits with which to bargain. Just as Mr. Obama did with Iran, Mr. Trump should focus on the most critical threat to our security and that of our allies — Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and the means to produce them — while making it clear that the United States will continue to punish other actions it abhors, including Pyongyang’s development of missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons.
There is something else Mr. Trump should borrow from the Iran deal: a monitoring system that blankets the entire nuclear supply chain — the mines, mills, centrifuge factories and assembly lines as well as the enrichment and reprocessing sites themselves. That’s the best way to ensure North Korea does not develop a covert program while pretending to make good on its commitments.
In the end, there will be a straightforward test for success: Does Mr. Kim still have nuclear weapons or the means to quickly produce them? Does he retain nuclear-capable missiles or the ability to rapidly reacquire them? Promises to denuclearize won’t cut it: North Korea repeatedly has made and broken them before.
Mr. Trump seemed to acknowledge that test when he said in April that denuclearization “means they get rid of their nukes.” “It would be easy for me to make a simple deal and claim victory,” he said. “I don’t want to do that. I want them to get rid of their nukes.”
Let’s see if Mr. Trump sticks to that standard. He has boasted so often of his ability to achieve what his predecessors could not that he may have trouble resisting the temptation to declare, prematurely, “Mission accomplished.”
That would greenlight China and others to ease up on economic pressure on North Korea, reducing American leverage and adding to the diplomatic bounty Mr. Kim already has accrued in his dealings with Mr. Trump. The very fact of meeting an American president gives Mr. Kim the legitimacy North Korea’s leaders have long sought. Mr. Trump has backed away from exerting “maximum pressure.” And he seems to have acquiesced to Pyongyang’s desire to negotiate a peace treaty before it gives up its nuclear weapons — the opposite of longstanding United States policy.
As part of the team that produced the Iran agreement, I hear the lesser angels of my nature rooting for failure in Singapore. But the national interest trumps schadenfreude, so I’m hoping for success — as long as it’s not “the worst deal ever.”
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