It is premature to predict that the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will produce any breakthroughs, like North Korea’s elimination of its nuclear arsenal. After all, it has promised to do so before and then gone back on its commitment, all the while building its offensive nuclear capability.
But let’s assume for a moment that a miracle does happen, and Kim finally comes to his senses and decides to denuclearize. Given Trump’s previous hard line — and the serious skepticism of his national security team, led by new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new National Security Adviser John Bolton — there’s only one way such an agreement should be acceptable to the U.S.: It would have to impose ironclad enforcement and verification requirements, including stringent international inspections to guarantee that all nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are destroyed and no new ones are built in their place.
That’s a tall order indeed, and one that may well elude the Trump administration. Yet should a viable denuclearization agreement with North Korea come to pass — and particularly if it leads to a peace treaty that finally and formally ends the Korean War, 65 years after it ended in bitter stalemate — it would represent an enormous diplomatic success. That might open the door to other denuclearization agreements that could follow the implementation template it lays down.
Let’s start with Iran. It too pledged to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for relief from punishing international sanctions, much as North Korea repeatedly promised and failed to do. And like North Korea, Iran’s previous actions offer little credible evidence that it will keep any commitment to actually give up its nuclear capability. In fact, the current nuclear deal with Iran is so full of holes and blind spots that Trump is right to insist that unless it is strengthened with real enforcement and inspection mechanisms, it will be scuttled by the U.S.
The recent intelligence trove of Iranian nuclear documents uncovered and released by the Israeli government confirm this hard reality. The Iranians have cheated on nuclear arms issues before and can be assumed to be cheating now — and to cheat again in the future — without constant international monitoring and oversight.
There’s precious little time to correct the deep flaws in the current agreement before the president must recertify continued U.S. participation in this deal. But suppose the U.S. firmly communicates to Iran’s ayatollahs what Trump essentially said to Kim: Give up your nuclear ambitions and stop threatening your neighbors with nuclear holocaust (and in Iran’s case, stop exporting terror) or you, too, will face the fire and fury of a determined America. Change your ways or the U.S. will lead a punishing quarantine of your country, reimposing harsh sanctions, including squeezing off revenue from Iranian oil.
If our Western allies are serious about containing Iranian nuclear capability and terrorist activity, a successful North Korean nuclear agreement could produce major leverage to finally bring Iran to heel. A deal with Kim would send a powerful signal to Iran to rethink its own nuclear ambitions.
And that brings us to Russia, which has cast its lot with Iranian and Syrian aggression and also threatens to restart a hugely expensive and expansive nuclear arms race with the U.S. A successful denuclearization summit with North Korea, followed by a meaningfully strengthened international nuclear agreement with Iran, would make it clear to Russia that sparring with the U.S. over nuclear weapons supremacy is a losing proposition. Just like the old Soviet Union finally recognized the futility of a nuclear arms race with us, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime would be well advised to avoid one today.
If North Korea and Iran can ultimately be made to see the light on nuclear proliferation, why not offer an opening to Russia to do likewise? It is unfortunate that the endless Russia probe in the U.S. stymies any moves to reopen arms-reductions negotiations between the two countries. Current estimate peg the cost of updating the U.S. nuclear force at over $1 trillion. And if the U.S. and Russia make good on plans to continue building new nuclear forces to counter each other, the cost could run to billions more. That’s money that Russia could use to strengthen its own shaky economy and the U.S. could use to rebuild crumbling infrastructure here.
So yes, a Korean-Iranian-Russian nuclear arms trifecta may be a long shot, but it’s worth the bet.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.