When President Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal two weeks ago, critics warned the move would undermine U.S. credibility just when it was needed most: on the eve of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons and missile programs. If Mr. Trump was willing to rip up the Iran deal, which had won the blessing of the United Nations Security Council and America’s biggest allies, why would Kim Jong Un believe the U.S. would abide by any new agreement?
The counterargument from Trump loyalists was mainly to blame President Obama for failing to make the Iran deal binding. If it had been ratified as a treaty by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, the agreement would have been harder to depart. But Mr. Obama evidently believed that ratification was unattainable, unnecessary to ensure his successors’ compliance, or both. But what is done by executive action can be undone by executive action. America’s credibility, therefore, wasn’t on the line—even if Mr. Obama’s might have been.
There’s some truth in this, but it misses a more basic point. Mr. Trump campaigned against the Iran deal not in principle, but because he saw its terms as bad for the U.S. Even if you disagree, taking his criticism seriously shows why the high-stakes negotiations with North Korea all but required Mr. Trump to dump the Iran deal. If he had kept it in place notwithstanding his power to withdraw, Mr. Kim could seize on its provisions as the starting point for the coming negotiations. Why would Mr. Kim accept a worse deal for North Korea than what Iran had obtained? Leaving one bad deal still active would have established the precedent for another bad deal.
The fundamental problem with the Iran deal is that while it buys time, which is good, it seems to do so in the hope that Tehran will have a change of heart over the 15-year course of the agreement. That fits with Mr. Obama’s oft-expressed vision of history bending in a liberal arc. But the premise seems highly dubious. Moreover, as negotiations were wrapping up, Mr. Obama seemed if anything more eager than Iran to conclude a deal. The flurry of American concessions at the end of the process raised suspicions that better terms might have been possible.
Hence the “four pillars” for a better agreement that French President Emmanuel Macron put forward last month during his visit to Washington: First, make the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs permanent. Second, add more-intrusive verification measures. Third, address Iran’s ballistic-missile program (on which the current deal is silent). Fourth, find a way to curb Iran’s regional adventurism, including in Syria.
What would the public think if a North Korea deal allowed Pyongyang to resume its nuclear program after 15 years? And included inspection procedures that were inadequate to verify compliance? And stood silent on North Korea’s rapidly advancing ballistic-missile program? And provided Mr. Kim with billions of dollars upfront in sanctions relief and other assistance? That would be a dubious deal by any light, and would certainly be bad by Mr. Trump’s terms.
Mr. Macron sought more time to negotiate new terms with Iran, and the U.S. might well have granted it before withdrawing—except for the press of events with North Korea. Mr. Trump needed to repudiate the deal before it became an impossible hindrance for his North Korea negotiators, starting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Many of Mr. Trump’s critics have demanded to know what comes next with Iran, as if war were the only alternative. It isn’t. In the first place, the deal remains ambiguously in place even without the U.S. Iran hasn’t withdrawn yet, and its nuclear activities so far don’t seem to exceed what might be called ordinary cheating. This ambiguity may be fairly stable, as Mr. Macron plays “good cop” to Mr. Trump’s “bad cop.” France continues to seek progress on the “four pillars,” with the inducement that Iranian concessions could draw the Americans back in.
More broadly, if Mr. Trump is right that he can obtain better terms from Mr. Kim, then a North Korea deal could become the template for a reworked Iran deal. In that sense the future of Iran’s nuclear program may run through Pyongyang.
Mr. Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.