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John Kerry says Trump’s behavior toward Iran complicates his North Korean gambit

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration

THE ONE CONSTANT you can count on with the Trump administration is chaos. Yet even by that standard, the last seven days have been tumultuous.

Last week, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn hit the silk. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was pushed unceremoniously off the plane. Tillerson never seemed up to dealing with both a complex world and a mercurial boss. Still, the selection of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him will vastly complicate an already intricate set of intertwined challenges: trying to strike a denuclearization deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un while determining the ultimate fate of the Iran nuclear agreement.


Unlike Tillerson, but very much like Trump, Pompeo sees the Iran deal as a disaster and has called for rolling it back. Speaking to reporters in 2014, as the pact was being negotiated, he offered this hyper-hawkish alternative: “[I]t is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” He’s also hinted about a desire for regime change in North Korea. In any world other than Trumpland, he’d be an odd choice indeed for a delicate diplomatic moment.

Yet here’s the irony: Despite the dual derision of the Iran deal, if Trump follows through on his intention to meet with Kim to pursue a denuclearization agreement, any arrangement that ensues will be judged against the Iran accord.

And that sets a pretty high bar.

“The Iran nuclear agreement is actually the most transparent, the most accountable, the most verified, strongest nuclear agreement between the international community and a country,” said former secretary of state John Kerry, who has a well-justified paternal pride in the pact.

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “It was a very good deal, and all the more of a good deal given how far behind we started.”

As Kerry notes, the Iran agreement contained crucial conditions Iran had to meet before international sanctions related to its nuclear program were lifted. Iran had to reconfigure its heavy-water reactor so it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium (fuel for the most powerful nuclear bombs). It also reduced its supply of enriched uranium by 98 percent and dismantled some 12,000 centrifuges, lengthening to about a year the time it would take to accumulate enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.


And though Trump and other critics have frequently complained that the pact isn’t permanent, the agreement grants the International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny over the entire nuclear-fuel cycle, from mines to mills to waste, for a quarter century.

So far, the IAEA has repeatedly certified that Iran is complying with the pact. That hasn’t been the experience with North Korea and past efforts aimed at stopping its nuclear weapons program.

If Trump can get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and agree to a strict inspections regime, he will have accomplished something extraordinary. But experts are skeptical.

“The chances of Kim Jung Un giving up his nuclear weapons in the near future approach negative infinity,” said former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO James Stavridis, now dean of Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “This will be the work of decades.”

“A flight of fancy,” judged Lewis.

A second dose of political irony: Trump’s own harsh rhetoric on the Iran deal — and his effort to undermine it, albeit in a way that doesn’t saddle him with blame — could compound the difficulty of an already herculean task.

“Kim Jong Un is going to say, ‘What happens with the next president? Will he throw the deal out?’ ” predicted Kerry.

But whatever becomes of Trump’s effort, the exercise could have a salutary effect if it brings him to a belated understanding of the merits of the Iran deal. After all, with this president, about the best you can hope for is that he someday starts to learn from his mistakes.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.