America, North Korea, and Iran

Al-Etihad, UAE, March 15

International relations have what political scientists call “grey zones.” These are areas of no conflicting interests but no clear agreements either. Then there are “white zones,” which symbolize close relations and full partnership between actors. Finally, there are “black zones” that represent war and fighting. So long as the white and grey zones continue to grow, we are told, the world is moving toward becoming safer and more stable. The US-North Korean summit in Hanoi ended abruptly last month. The prevailing impression in most political and media circles is that the summit failed. But this is an imprecise conclusion, which is linked to a narrow view that limits international relations to a “white” and “black” dichotomy. According to this view, if the summit did not end up with clear, specific results, it was nothing short of a failure. This is how pundits described the Hanoi summit, after the two leaders, Trump and Kim Jong-un, left without releasing a statement or document of any kind. But this is not necessarily true. The summit seemed to have failed because the US president insisted on Pyongyang’s commitment to destroy its nuclear capabilities and set precise technical standards to ensure there were no loopholes that would allow it to circumvent the agreement when the negotiations came to an end. What undoubtedly guided Trump in his negotiations was the previous American experience with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which left too many loopholes for Iran. Trump therefore decided to withdraw from negotiations and re-impose the sanctions that the Obama administration had lifted. Trump realized that Pyongyang was looking for an agreement that was essentially the same as what he had rejected with Iran. Jong-un went to Hanoi with a proposal to lift the US sanctions in exchange for the closure of a section of the huge Yongbyon complex that houses uranium enrichment facilities — a phased agreement that would lead to continued negotiations at a later stage. But Trump’s acceptance of such a formula means he is willing to risk reproducing the experience of negotiations with Iran. If we look at this formula, it clearly defines what Pyongyang will get, the lifting of sanctions and then its integration into the international community, even while there is still room for ambiguity about the United States’ ability to ensure that North Korea complies with the agreement. Trump and his team in Hanoi wanted a clearly-worded deal that would ensure North Korea would not become a nuclear state 10 years from now, unlike the agreement with Iran. But the success of Trump’s negotiating strategy takes time, because it depends on building the confidence that has been completely lost with North Korea, and has only started to lay its foundation less than a year ago. Thus, the future of negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang depends on continued progress in building confidence, leading to a level of relations that would avoid the flaws of the negotiations that resulted in the JCPOA between the P5+1 group and Iran. – Waheed Abd al-Majeed

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