Home / Opinion / Donald Trump’s dangerous triple gamble

Even by the standards of dystopia set by the Donald Trump administration, events of the past fortnight have plumbed an alarming new nadir. The unilateral spiteful decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and re-impose US sanctions, followed by the inflammatory decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the ill-conceived approach of disarming North Korea’s nuclear fangs without any reciprocal “give" have plunged inter-state relations—not to mention Washington’s reputation—to a new low. Initiating and managing any one of these would have proved a calculated risk for a functional administration; Trump’s dangerous triple gamble reflects a lethal mix of hubris and sciolism.

Trump’s decision on Iran is akin to releasing the emergency brakes on an explosive-laden car precariously parked on a steep slope. Trump’s rationale that the deal neither addressed Iran’s missile programme nor Tehran’s interventions in Syria and Yemen is entirely disingenuous; pulling out of the deal and imposing unilateral sanctions in no way prevents either.

The timing of Trump’s decision is also tactically inexplicable. Instead of postponing his decision till after the proposed summit with Kim Jong-un (which might have left Pyongyang guessing), Trump chose to announce it before this crucial meeting. While Washington might have calculated that this would project it as a tough negotiator, Pyongyang is likely to see the US as unreliable. Indeed, given North Korea’s experience with the failed 1994 “Agreed Framework", which collapsed partly on account of the US inability to keep its part of the bargain, Kim is unlikely to trust the US on any deal.

By reneging on the deal, Washington has destroyed the fragile consensus built with Russia and China to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and has also caused a perilous break with European allies—notably France, Germany and the UK. Even as Trump claimed a “unified" front and the desire to “work with allies", the European allies expressed “regret and concern" and emphasized their own “continuing commitment" to the deal. European Union president, Donald Tusk, scathingly tweeted: “Looking at latest decisions of @realDonaldTrump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies."

While the three European parties, along with Russia and China, have expressed their desire to maintain the deal, thereby tacitly challenging the unilateral US sanctions, their desire to defy Washington will be played out against the backdrop of other trade sanctions that the US has threatened to impose. Similarly, for the moment, Tehran is also interested in maintaining the deal, as long as it can accrue economic benefits and autonomy of action. Trump’s assumption is that the unilateral US sanctions would be so crippling on both Iran and the supporters of the deal that Tehran would beg for it to be renegotiated. However, there is no contingency if Tehran is able to withstand the sanctions. As one expert noted, there is no “Plan B".

Were the deal to collapse, Iran, instead of seeking to renegotiate it, might well be tempted to accelerate its march towards nuclear weapons. This is exactly what happened after the collapse of the US-North Korea “Agreed Framework" in 2003 following president George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil" speech. North Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty the same year and conducted its first test three years later.

If Trump’s dismissal of the Iran deal defies logic, then his administration’s approach to dealing with North Korea is even more illogical. Consider the following: North Korea has categorically stated that unilateral dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal is not an option; Pyongyang would be willing to give up its ace nuclear card only in exchange for a binding peace agreement, security guarantees, lifting of sanctions, and economic cooperation. A process akin to the Iran deal would be the preferred pathway for North Korea to eventually give up nuclear arms.

Instead, Trump’s new, and already endangered, national security adviser (NSA) John Bolton—an avid proponent of regime change and dismissive of long drawn-out diplomatic efforts—publicly proposed the so-called “Libyan-model" of disarmament. Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, unilaterally gave up his nuclear weapon programme in 2004, did not receive any security guarantees and, following an intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2011, lost power and his life. Predictably, this approach is abhorrent and a deal-breaker for North Korea, where regime security and, indeed, security of the Kim lineage is paramount. In fact, since the brutal death of Gaddafi, North Korean officials consistently pose one rhetorical question: would Gaddafi still be alive if he had not given up the nuclear programme? The answer to Pyongyang is clear.

Bolton’s Libyan-model approach also falls back to the unilateral “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible, disarmament" (CVID) approach, which is totally unacceptable to Pyongyang. Thus, the threat to cancel the summit if Bolton’s way is followed is a clear warning shot and might be the first nail in the coffin of the latest NSA incumbent; the White House disavowed the “Libyan-model" with alacrity. While the summit is likely to be held, given Trump’s vainglory (and delusions of a Nobel peace prize) coupled with Kim’s desire for a meeting with a sitting US president, the absence of a common understanding about the negotiations makes the outcome a dangerous gamble. Both will have to think outside the box and neither has shown that ability yet.

W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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