Though he was sharply criticized by the media and many
foreign policy analysts for a “failed” summit in Hanoi, President Donald J.
Trump was absolutely right to walk away from talks that were going in the wrong
Given Trump’s penchant for publicity, it might have been easy – tempting, even – for him to have accepted a far-from-perfect offer from the Dear Leader of Pyongyang, held a joint press conference, and claimed victory in hopes of winning the news cycle.
But it became apparent to the president – along with his chief aides Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – that Kim Jong Un has not yet truly decided to dismantle his illegal nuclear weapons program in return for sanctions relief, security guarantees and international economic assistance.
Trump knew the deal’s flaws would have been quickly exposed. What’s more, he knew that appearing too eager to cut a deal with a regime that already has upwards of 60 operational nuclear warheads would have cut against his “Art of the Deal” brand, and further undermined American credibility and leverage so badly squandered during the Obama-Biden years.
“Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” Trump said.
I have not always agreed with Trump’s policies or public statements, but in this case I can honestly say, “Good for him.”
What a contrast to the approach taken by President Barack Obama. The liberal Democrat from Chicago famously won glorious headlines and international accolades in 2015 for agreeing to the infamous nuclear deal with Iran known formally as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Some wags at the time even suggested the deal helped to “retroactively justify” the Nobel Peace Prize that Obama won in 2009.
Yet the JCPOA was fatally flawed from the beginning. It did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium. It did not require Iran to scrap its nuclear industry. It did not provide for surprise international inspections of all Iranian nuclear and military sites. Nor will it prevent Iran from one day building an ever-expanding arsenal of nuclear warheads. Rather, at best, it merely delays that fateful moment for a 10 to 15 years, three years of which have already ticked by.
If this weren’t bad enough, the JCPOA did nothing to bring a halt to Iran’s feverish efforts to build ballistic missiles with ever-increasing ranges. Nor did it bring a halt to Iran’s military and financial support for terrorist organizations, from Hezbollah to Hamas to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Nor did its negotiators even try to achieve these aims.
For these and myriad other reasons, Trump and his advisers scrapped the JCPOA in May 2018, and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.
There was no way, then, that Trump was going to show weakness in Hanoi. He knew full well the Iranians were watching very closely and was determined to ratchet up the pressure on both the Iranians and the North Koreans, to give up their dangerous quests for nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them, or face devastating consequences.
There is another element at play here of which few Americans are aware.
For years, Tehran and Pyongyang have been working together closely on a variety of military matters. There is no question they are assisting each other’s ballistic missile programs, and have been since the 1980s. But are they also secretly cooperating on the development of nuclear warheads?
The premise at the heart of my forthcoming political thriller, The Persian Gamble, is this: What if Tehran decided to use the $150 billion in cash it received from the West for agreeing to the Iran nuclear deal to secretly purchase five fully operational nuclear warheads from the cash-starved regime in Pyongyang, even while publicly pretending to adhere to the JCPOA? Might the ayatollahs try to bring such warheads into an Iranian harbor, right under the noses of the CIA and the Mossad? It would be an enormously risky move. But it is conceivable they could conclude the gamble was worth it.
American, Israeli and Arab intelligence officials I spoke with as I was researching and writing the novel say they have not seen evidence that Iran is literally trying to buy operational warheads “off the shelf.” Not yet, anyway.
However, they note with concern the fact that senior Iranian military and nuclear officials have been present for at least three North Korean nuclear warhead tests, and maybe more. They acknowledge it is conceivable that Pyongyang could be selling Tehran the data from each of these tests, helping the Iranians fine-tune plans to build their own warheads without having to test them during the period of the JCPOA.
“I have no doubt the proliferation tie between Iran and North Korea is real and active,” one former senior US intelligence official told me.
The prospect of the world’s two most dangerous rogue regimes teaming up to build the world’s most deadly weapons – along with the ICBMs to deliver them into American and Israeli cities – would be chilling enough if it was only fiction. The prospect that any of this could actually be true in real life makes me all the more glad President Trump is getting tough with both regimes when his predecessor did not.