By Laurence Norman
March 10, 2018 7:57 a.m. ET
BRUSSELS—The planned meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May will make it more likely the administration will kill the Iranian nuclear agreement, some current and former western officials said.
The Kim meeting could come within days of Mr. Trump’s May 12 deadline for deciding whether to extend U.S. sanctions waivers on Iran. The president has repeatedly attacked the Iran agreement and warned he may refuse to sign the waivers, a step that would likely breach the agreement’s terms and could see Iran revive key nuclear work.
People involved in the Iran deal have long said its fate could weigh heavily on diplomacy with Pyongyang. They argued that abandoning the 2015 Iranian accord will lead Mr. Kim to conclude that security guarantees he will almost certainly seek from the U.S. in exchange for scaling back his nuclear program can’t be relied on.
Now, some of the same voices said they fear the opposite will happen. With the diplomatic window suddenly opening with North Korea, it could persuade Mr. Trump that killing the Iran deal could strengthen his hand with Mr. Kim.
Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran deal who also led years of diplomacy with North Korea in the Clinton administration, said “the logic is that if the United States leaves” the Iran deal, it would undermine Washington’s credibility.
“However the president may, because of the way he operates, believe that somehow, tearing it up, will say that he won’t negotiate what he calls a ‘bad deal.’ That would be a disaster because he would then have two nuclear crises on his hands at the same time,” she said.
Another senior western diplomat said the Kim talks are likely bad news for the Iran agreement, which lifted most international sanctions in exchange for temporary but tight restrictions on most Iranian nuclear work. “There’s a risk that he says this was a bad agreement and we’ll show you how to do business,” the person said of Mr. Trump.
Some Iran deal critics agree. James Carafano, vice president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, who worked on the Trump transition team, said the president is serious that the Iranian deal isn’t good enough.
“Kim is going to learn that if he thinks he is going to cut a deal, it’s going to have to be way more ironclad than the JCPOA,” he said, referring to the formal name of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Diplomats and analysts have long cautioned against drawing too close a parallel between the North Korean and Iranian nuclear challenges.
North Korea’s nuclear program is advanced and its tests have made clear that the country has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Its economy also has limited international ties.
Iran’s economy is much more open and susceptible to sanctions. While Tehran produced enough nuclear material—enriched uranium—that could have been used for a weapon, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in December 2015 its work on weaponizing the material had likely made modest progress.
One of Mr. Trump’s biggest criticisms of the Iranian nuclear deal, which saw most international sanctions lifted on Tehran in exchange for tight but temporary restrictions on much of its nuclear program, was that it was kicking a nuclear problem down the road, much as previous deals with North Korea had failed to stop Pyongyang’s march to the bomb.
Advocates of the Iran deal say its obligations stretch well beyond what North Korea agreed to and allow the international community to deal with other challenges from Tehran without Iran brandishing the nuclear threat.
Chagai Tzuriel, Director General of the Israeli Ministry of intelligence said the illicit development of North Korea’s nuclear program had impacted on decisions made in Tehran and in Washington about Iran. At times, he said, North Korea and Iran may have consulted on how to contend with international pushback to their nuclear work.
Given the volatile decision-making process in Washington, not everyone is sure how North Korean-U.S. talks, if they proceed, will impact the Iran deal.
Richard Nephew, a former top U.S. Treasury official who was part of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, said the apparent breakthrough with Pyongyang could give Mr. Trump the kind of bipartisan backing that lifts political pressure on him from Republicans to abandon the Iran agreement.
“But it may also open space to do so since he wouldn’t have two crises to manage. Moreover, he may feel that threatening war and massive sanctions worked” with Pyongyang “and that it would be good to run that play again with Iran,” he said.