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Iran and North Korea ... and the art of the denuclearization deal

model of thought

President Trump has consistently heaped scorn on the Iran deal achieved by his predecessor. But his announcement that the US was pulling out also presented an opportunity to tout his approach to talks with North Korea. Even as he defied critics and the advice of allies, he was saying: This is how to do a deal.

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President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House after signing a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement on May 8, 2018.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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It was no mere aside when President Trump used his statement Tuesday on withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal to announce that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was about to touch down in North Korea to lay the groundwork for the upcoming summit.

Instead, the leader who presents himself as a great dealmaker – and who disdains the kind of multilateralism the 2015 Iran deal represents – was making a point.

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To his base, to the allies who had implored Mr. Trump to keep the United States inside the international agreement, and to the previous administration, the president was saying, “Watch how a real denuclearization deal is done.”

Recommended:As Trump mulls withdrawal from Iran deal, Europe braces for fallout

If such events had a soundtrack, this one’s would have been the 1995 anthem, “This is how we do it.”

Trump – who had vowed as a candidate to end President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement – intends to tout his North Korea gambit as the template for how negotiations with rogue nations like Iran and North Korea should be carried out.

The showcasing of the North Korea model continued Wednesday, as the State Department trumpeted that not only had Secretary Pompeo met with Kim Jong-un, but he had also secured the release of three detained Americans “and is delighted to bring them home.” Trump also tweeted Wednesday that the time and place of his meeting with Mr. Kim has been set, but he did not disclose details.

Of course the Trump model is not just about one-on-one sit-downs. Rather, instead of long negotiations involving diplomats from a half-dozen countries, it calls for the following: use brinkmanship coming directly from the American president, threaten obliteration by America’s unequaled firepower, and make talks a one-on-one affair between the deciders of each side.

That it is less about diplomatic prowess and more about imposing America’s might was made clear by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who told reporters at the White House Tuesday that the Iran deal’s fatal flaw was its failure to employ America’s positions of strength.

“The lesson that America learned, painfully, a long time ago, but that Dean Acheson once said, is we only negotiate from positions of strength,” Mr. Bolton said. “It was a lesson that the last administration did not follow.”

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How North Koreans read the move

He went on to link the president’s action on Iran to upcoming negotiations with North Korea. “Another aspect of the withdrawal that was announced today is to establish positions of strength for the United States, and it will have implications not simply for Iran, but for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea,” he said. “It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.”

Other experts, including some who were involved in negotiating the Iran deal and with past talks with North Korea, say Trump’s decision to withdraw from a deal the US negotiated alongside international partners and signed on to may have a different impact with the North Korean leadership.

Pulling out of a multilaterally negotiated accord “says the United States is not a reliable partner,” says Wendy Sherman, the Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the Iran deal. She was earlier involved in talks with the North Koreans.

“Some analysts have said that North Korea may not care about” the US leaving a multilateral deal, “that the president will say he’s going to make a better deal with North Korea. I’m not so sure of that, having negotiated with the North Koreans myself,” she adds, “but I can tell you for sure that it will make South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia more wary of the United States as a negotiator.”

Priority for Europeans

Bolton scoffs at such assertions, underscoring that he would be speaking as of Wednesday morning with his European counterparts about ways to now secure a comprehensive deal with Iran. For the Trump administration, the aim would be to address not just the current deal’s shortcomings (like its sunset clauses on nuclear activities) but Iran’s ballistic missile development and “malign activities” in the region as well.

The Europeans will continue to talk with the US – there’s consensus on the other side of the Atlantic that nothing was gained by Europe’s bitter falling-out with the US in 2003 over Iraq. But core powers France, Britain, and Germany are making it clear that their top priority is going to be preserving the current deal and keeping Iran in compliance with it.

That priority is likely to mean that US allies will end up working more closely with Russia and China, also signatories of the Iran deal. And the US-Europe estrangement caused by the US withdrawal will only sharpen if re-imposed US sanctions end up hitting European companies trading with Iran as permitted under the nuclear deal.

More long-term, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and his prioritizing of a bilateral model of negotiations with North Korea is likely to cement the global perception that the world has to learn how to work with a less multilateral America putting hard power first.

Indeed, up until now, Trump’s major foreign-policy decisions could be seen as primarily reflections of an America-First approach. From pulling out of the Paris climate accords and nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to imposing tariffs on China and other trading partners and even threatening allies over inadequate defense spending, the aim could be seen as putting American workers and taxpayers first.

But the Iran deal exit is about America Alone – the US getting out of a multilateral arrangement that hamstrung American power – and Trump’s vision of a more muscular leadership where the US goes forward and others follow.

Setting too high a bar?

By spotlighting his North Korea efforts – the end goal of which is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – even as he pulled the US out of the Iran deal, Trump was telling the world his approach would be superior and would never sign America on to a weak deal.

That will appeal to Trump’s supporters at home, but some experts with diplomatic experience worry the president is laying the groundwork for disappointment – whether with North Korea, or over prospects for getting a “better deal” with Iran.

“The president is setting a standard for himself with any negotiations with North Korea that it will be almost impossible for him to meet,” former deputy secretary of State Tony Blinken told reporters Tuesday.

“In decrying the substance of the Iran deal, he is saying that in any negotiations with North Korea he would have to get an agreement that surpasses it, and that means getting the North Koreans up front to dismantle the vast bulk of their nuclear program, as we achieved with Iran, and it would mean … the most intrusive inspections regime on the ground in North Korea in history,” he says.

That is indeed what Trump is saying he believes he can get. But as Mr. Blinken says, “Those will be very, very difficult bars to jump.”