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Trump is toying with Iran — and another US adversary is watching

  • If the U.S. pulls out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, that could further complicate ongoing tensions with North Korea, U.S. allies and rivals both warn
  • Dashing the pact could also undermine Washington's credibility as a negotiating partner in the international community

President Donald Trump's apparent willingness to exit an agreement with Iran could undermine any hope of negotiations with another adversary: North Korea.

The credibility of Washington's international commitments is now at stake, and mixed messages coming out of the White House are only exacerbating the situation.

Tehran, October 14, 2017: An Iranian man reads a copy of the daily newspaper 'Omid Javan' bearing a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump with a headline that reads 'Crazy Trump and logical JCPOA' (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Tehran, October 14, 2017: An Iranian man reads a copy of the daily newspaper 'Omid Javan' bearing a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump with a headline that reads 'Crazy Trump and logical JCPOA' (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)

Trump last week refused to formally certify that Tehran was complying with the terms of a landmark 2015 pact aimed at controlling Iran's nuclear program, prompting expectations that the U.S. would be leaving the agreement. Two days later, however, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington would remain in the deal "right now."

Washington is worried that Iran will "become the next North Korea," Haley said. "They can't continue to test ballistic missiles, which will lead to a nuclear Iran," she recently told ABC. Last month, Tehran said it conducted a successful ballistic missile test.

It's not readily apparent, though, that Iran could reach North Korea's level of technological prowess anytime soon. The Iran deal aims to prevent the country from generating the capability to break out whereas North Korea already has a robust weapons and missile program, including a potential hydrogen bomb, explained Paul Musgrave, assistant professor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

While Pyongyang has shown little inclination to discuss halting its nuclear ambitions thus far, many now fear the current situation will further dissuade leader Kim Jong Un from pursuing a diplomatic path.

In fact, in the face of U.S. wavering on the Iran deal, the expert community working on North Korea issues "is scratching its head," Stephan Haggard, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics, said in a recent note. "Why would North Korea return to negotiations if the outcome is subject to endless renegotiation?"

Both allies and critics of the White House have warned Trump about the long-term consequences of terminating the Iran agreement.

In a statement on Monday, European Union leaders reiterated that the Iran pact was essential to global nuclear non-proliferation, with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warning of potential damage to future interactions with Kim's regime.

"If we want to talk to North Korea now, the possible end for the nuclear deal with Iran would jeopardize the credibility of such treaties," Reuters quoted Gabriel as saying.

Over the weekend, Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times echoed a similar stance. "The collapse of this deal would make the North Korean nuclear problem more difficult to settle ... Pyongyang won't believe the U.S. as it could easily junk an international agreement."

But, strategists say, it could have been worse.

The fact that Trump didn't re-impose sanctions on Iran works in Washington's favor, said Musgrave: "It shows that the White House might be restrained by some arguments from making truly rash decisions."

If Washington does terminate the Iran deal, it wouldn't be the first time the world's largest economy has reneged on international promises. In Libya, the U.S. backtracked from an agreement with former President Moammar Gadhafi once the developing economy gave up its weapons program.