As President Trump barrels toward dismantling the Iran deal, profound reverberations on the most pressing nuclear crisis we face are beginning to be felt. This nuclear challenge does not emanate from Iran, a country that prior to formal implementation of the deal removed two-thirds of its nuclear centrifuges, shipped out 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium, destroyed its heavy-water reactor, and agreed to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated.
Rather, this crisis is centered some 4,000 miles from Iran — in North Korea.
There would be no more crippling a blow to the prospects for a peaceful outcome with North Korea than walking away from the Iran deal. Abrogating the pact would greatly increase the risk of a massive conflict on the Korean Peninsula, placing our allies and the more than 20,000 U.S. service members in South Korea at tremendous risk.
That is not to say that doing away with the deal would be a consequence-free endeavor when it comes to the threats we could face from Iran — or the price we could be forced to pay in American blood and treasure — down the road. Far from it. The national security risks in the coming months and years would be steep; blowing up the deal would require America to be content with a nuclear-armed Iran — which nearly all foreign policy experts agree is unpalatable — or become engaged in another costly military conflict in the Middle East.
But there is a key distinction between the Iranian and North Korean cases. Iran, as long as the 2015 deal remains in place, is verifiably and permanently prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, already has an arsenal of nuclear warheads as well as increasingly sophisticated long-range delivery vehicles. According to some analysts, this arsenal is already capable of a nuclear strike against the United States, which is why America must assiduously avoid anything that would make a peaceful resolution more difficult.
That is exactly what unilaterally walking away from the Iran deal would do: send a clear signal to Pyongyang that America’s diplomatic word is not worth the paper it is written on. We learned late last month from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the United States had probed the feasibility of direct talks with Pyongyang. Other State Department and White House officials subsequently added that the North Koreans had demonstrated no interest in dialogue. That comes as no surprise, not only given President Donald Trump’s fiery threats and personal invective against Kim Jong Un, but also because these approaches came in the midst of unmistakable signals from the administration that it was ready to tear up the nuclear deal America had negotiated most recently — the one with Iran, which is working. Following through with it could well close the door with North Korea completely.
Our partners who are eager to diffuse the North Korean nuclear crisis also will be paying close attention to the fate of the Iran deal, which the United States negotiated with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, China, and Iran. Two of these partners — China and Russia — have long served as key interlocutors with North Korea as members of the so-called “Six Party Talks,” a group that also includes the United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. China, in particular, has tightened the noose on its nettlesome neighbor only under intense diplomatic pressure from successive American presidents. Moscow and Beijing would certainly think twice before entering into another hard-fought nuclear deal with Washington should the Trump administration trash their previous collaborative effort.
If the administration is serious about finding a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis — as it should be — there are steps short of scuttling the Iran deal to address Tehran’s troubling behavior that would be more likely to leave Pyongyang and our partners amenable to dealing with America in the future. There are a series of U.S. and multilateral sanctions against Iran for its support to terrorist groups and for its ballistic missile program, whose enforcement the administration could strengthen by rallying the international community rather than by going it alone.
Trump, however, appears determined to chip away at the Iran deal with an announcement this week, leaving Congress as the final bulwark protecting the deal and, in turn, the viability of a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis. By declining to introduce legislation re-imposing nuclear sanctions on Tehran or any other deal-killing measures in the coming weeks, our lawmakers in Washington have an opportunity to stop the administration’s recklessness in its tracks. Many in Congress will need to put country above political party. The stakes — two nuclear showdowns — could not be higher.
Ned Price served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017 as senior director and special assistant to the president and worked at the CIA from 2006 until February 2017.