Obama Vs. Trump: Whose Approach Is Better On Nukes?

North Korea will test Trump’s diplomatic approach, and time will tell if he can prevail.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

While the Dotard in the United States and the Rocket Man in North Korea exchange escalating nuclear threats, many are wondering whether the criticisms of former president Barack Obama’s controversial deal with Iran were misguided. The measured, multilateral approach of Donald Trump’s predecessor may have left some unconvinced of Iranian compliance. However, the possibility of tough talk and bravado provoking not one, but two nuclear wars isn’t necessarily playing well on the global stage.

Recently, the Trump administration reminded world leaders that the United States still views Iran as a potential enemy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the country a threat and made it clear that his boss did not abandon the idea of reviewing the deal on the Iranian nuclear program concluded under Obama. Tillerson made his statement at a press conference in Washington. He described it as a failed deal between Iran and six international mediators: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany.

Is it really a failed deal? Consider America’s position in the world order when the tough-talking Bush administration was in power.

When Obama succeeded George W. Bush, the United States was not only the strongest, but also the most frightening international power. Americans were feared by not only of their opponents, but also of some of their allies. The Bush Era war on terrorism and its identification of enemies on the so-called “axis of evil” frustrated not only Americans, but also the nation’s allies. The American people and the rest of the world were tired of the operations the Bush administration started, largely regardless of political affiliation and background. Obama’s promise to put an end to this style of politics was perceived positively and in some regions of the world, we have witnessed subsequent pacification of tensions.

By the time Obama negotiated the Iran deal eight years later, it seemed to many that the world order was, if not neutralized, moving toward stability. Still, a populist wave of hardline conservatism in many nations emerged during the twilight of the Obama presidency. Fueled by then-candidate Donald Trump, they questioned the sincerity and viability of Obama’s diplomacy.

Going forward, in the specific case of Iran it is important to objectively examine historical evidence of its defense capabilities.

The creation of nuclear power in Iran began during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when in the mid-1950s the Atomic Center of Tehran University was founded. Developments in the field of nuclear energy were carried out with the help of the United States, with which Iran signed an agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in 1957. In accordance with this agreement, Washington undertook and agreed to supply nuclear installations, equipment, and train specialists.

In 1958, Iran became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1963, Iran signed a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water, and in 1970 joined a treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). In 1974, Iran signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA and proceeded to implement the nuclear industry development plan on the basis of cooperation with a number of Western countries. All these developments and works were stalled when a revolution took place in 1978.

The new leadership of Iran did not show interest in the nuclear sphere until about the middle of the 1980s. In the second half of the 1980s, Iran established a nuclear research center in Isfahan on the basis of a small reactor from China.

In the early 1990s, Iran began to show activity in its nuclear program. After attempts to establish cooperation in the field of nuclear energy with a number of countries with experience in this field, Iran turned to China and Russia. In 1992, a protocol was signed on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy between Iran and China, and an agreement on the “use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” between Iran and Russia.

Since 2003, Russia, the United States, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany have been negotiating with Iran on a “nuclear dossier” with the IAEA. “The Six” wanted to stop Iran from suspending uranium enrichment, which could pose a threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The decades-long tense atmosphere surrounding the negotiations began to change in 2013, when a historic telephone conversation between Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani brought hope to the international community that years of sanctions, inspections, and tough talk might be coming to an end. The momentum continued throughout the final years of the Obama administration when Iran and The Six convened in Geneva, and Iran first expressed readiness for the IAEA’s sudden inspections. The international community announced that it was ready to accept limited enrichment of uranium in Iran for the purpose of energy.

To reach a comprehensive agreement, the parties met many times. As in most complex international situations, the negotiations encountered obstacles and the terms were postponed many times. In an intensive series of meetings for three weeks in Vienna, eventually an agreement was reached. Diplomats representing Iran and The Six emerged from a fashionable Vienna hotel with the result they had been pursuing for almost two years: a comprehensive agreement on the limitation of the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of harsh economic sanctions.

Today, the agreement has achieved its desired results, but each of the parties remains suspicious that the others might fail to fulfill its obligations.

Indeed, the nuclear agreement on Iran is an important example of world cooperation for resolving major crises, and a critical strategic element for maintaining global security.

The coming months will show how and in what capacity Trump will be successful in de-escalating a nuclear conflict with North Korea. Should the Iran deal come into question, the situation in North Korea will be a global indicator of Trump’s ability to conclude effective deals for the United States, and whether his approach will be more beneficial than what was achieved by Obama and The Six.

It’s impossible for observers around the world not to watch and wonder whether the Iran deal will collapse in the Trump Era. However, despite tough rhetoric, it is unlikely that Washington and Tehran will take extreme measures to overturn the existing nuclear agreement without provocation. Prominent Western leaders concur.

High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini has said, “there is no need to renegotiate parts of the agreement, because the agreement is working.”

France echoed the sentiment when President Macron told reporters he thinks “it would be a mistake just to abandon the nuclear agreement without anything else.”

Unlike North Korea, Iran has much stronger ties to the West via its historical relationship to the United States and economic relations with European countries. North Korea has always been removed from the West, and even fought against them in the war. The Six and UN can only cooperate with North Korea and remove sanctions if they renounce the nuclear program, as Iran has done, and start cooperating with West in different areas.

While Trump’s nuclear rhetoric may be viewed by some as having a negative subtext with respect to Iran — if not a direct threat — it is still unlikely that he will break the agreement. Considering active conflicts with Syria, Qatar and North Korea, Trump probably seeks to scare Iran into continued compliance. A unilateral withdrawal from the agreement would undermine the credibility and image of the United States in the international arena. Iran has no incentive to invite new sanctions and jeopardize economic activity. Likewise, Trump’s domestic issues are mounting, so another international conflict may not be something he can afford going into the 2018 midterm elections or 2020 presidential re-elect.

The nuclear deal was considered one of the main foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration. Almost a year into his tenure, it’s proven difficult for Trump to roll back many of Obama’s accomplishments, including Obamacare, and the Iran deal would likely pose a similar obstacle.

North Korea will test Trump’s diplomatic approach, and time will tell if he can prevail. Still, compared with Obama’s strategy, Trump’s is unpopular.