Analysis

Trump-Kim Summit: Iran's Khamenei Can’t Smile Just Yet

If a paper like the one the U.S. and North Korea signed in Singapore had been signed by Iran, not only Israel would have gone crazy; for now, Tehran can watch and learn

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during Friday prayers in Tehran.
\ Morteza Nikoubazl/ REUTERS

If the joint declaration signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump reflects the latter’s ultimate achievement, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei can only regret he did not anticipate that a leader like Trump would rise to power in the United States – and that he didn’t wait until Trump came into office to sign the nuclear agreement with him instead of President Barack Obama.

The heart of the decleration with North Korea relies on its readiness for “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” with no timetable, and without pledging that denuclearization will be irreversible.

Iran, in contrast, was not asked and did not commit to denuclearizing for the simple reason that it does not have nuclear weapons. Iran signed a detailed, tough accord that includes addenda which state clearly the nature of the invasive, sophisticated means by which the International Atomic Energy Agency will monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Iran committed itself to a timetable by which it will not be able to enrich uranium beyond 3.5 percent for a decade from the day the agreement was signed, and to remain under close scrutiny for another decade. Iran removed its 20-percent-enriched uranium, shut down thousands of centrifuges and pledged that if it installs new ones, they would be from the old generation.

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Those are only a few examples of the approximately 160 pages of the nuclear agreement with Iran, whose clauses Tehran has implemented without exception according to the IAEA and the American government. As opposed to North Korea, Iran signed a treaty to prevent nuclear proliferation and also pledged to sign the treaty’s Additional Protocol to strengthen and extend safeguards, an issue North Korea was not asked to address at all.

Similar pledges were not even mentioned in the joint declaration signed by Trump and Kim Jong Un. When asked why these pledges were not discussed with North Korea, Trump responded: “There’s no time. I’m here for one day.” The agreement with Iran was discussed in detail for two years before it was signed.

If a paper like the one Trump and Kim signed had been signed by Iran, not only would Israel have gone crazy; Europe also would deem it remiss in failing to meet the necessary minimum to reduce the Iranian threat. One can only chuckle at Trump’s statement that now he will seek a meaningful agreement with Iran, because if a meaningful agreement means accords of the type reached at the festival organized by the two leaders in Singapore, Khamenei needn’t worry.

And still, Iran, which signed the very extensive pledge not to develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, cannot be sure that the agreement it signed with the six world powers and that was ratified by the United Nations will not blow up in its face after Trump decided to drop out of it. Iran has a huge vested interest in maintaining the agreement, especially because it has already entered the post-treaty era, in which the seeds of promised economic benefits have begun to sprout.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP

It is working energetically toward a real commitment by Europe to stick to the agreement, and is signing wide-ranging investment and development contracts with China. Beijing has said it will not back out of the nuclear agreement and will not join the anticipated American sanctions, and despite the intention of giant concerns like Peugeot and the French energy titan Total or Western airlines to freeze and even pull out of deals with Iran, the list of foreign companies still operating in the Islamic Republic that intend to stay is a long one. Israel might be pleased with companies pulling out of deals with Iran as proof of the success of threatened sanctions. But that could turn out to be the satisfaction of the passengers aboard the Titanic.

This is because Israel, the United States and Europe have no answer to the basic question: How will Iran act if it finds itself in a situation in which the agreement has collapsed and sanctions are fully reinstated and harsher ones are imposed by the United States. Will Iran go back to enriching uranium to high and dangerous levels? Will it renew its military nuclear programs? And will it be possible to bring Iran back to the negotiating table after the United States so callously broke the nuclear accord?

The American and Israeli assumption is that particularly harsh sanctions will compel Iran to agree to an upgraded agreement, but Iran, which held out for 30 years under varying degrees of sanctions, has already proven that it has the strength not only to survive but to preserve its regime in the face of opposition. It has also demonstrated the capability of developing very advanced technology while under international embargo, but it has also shown rational and sober conduct when the opportunity rose to sign an agreement.

For years Iran conducted a “resistance economy,” which means cuts to subsidies and spending restrictions, but it had enough reserves to fund organizations working outside of Iran and serving its interests and yes, to pay for the deep corruption of its leadership. Khamenei might therefore have to announce a return to that policy, turning Iran inward, renewing uranium enrichment and development of its nuclear program and perhaps in so doing, drag the region into war.

On the other hand, Iran might consent to discuss a separate agreement about its ballistic missile infrastructure, on condition that such an accord would not come instead of the nuclear agreement and would not create new sanctions, but be the outcome of a new diplomatic move.

The other option, which seems to have been suspended for the past two years, is that the European countries, Russia and China maintain ties with Iran on the nuclear agreement as if there were no American threat to renew sanctions. The problem is that the implementation of that scenario depends on the good will of corporations that are in no hurry to risk their investments to serve the policies of their governments.

Iran can draw no conclusions at the moment from the agreements reached with North Korea. Because as opposed to the promises that Trump generously offered that terrible regime, Iran has become a country threatened by the United States after the signing of the agreement. And a country threatened could be much more dangerous than a country that seems itself part of the family of nations.