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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

One president, two threats and three flawed deals: how Trump's nuclear victories will be hollow ones

His bombast notwithstanding, war is the last thing the US president wants. Yet the deals he is presiding over are fundamentally flawed, writes Hussein Ibish

The Korean summit puts the ball squarely in the court of US President Donald Trump, whose much anticipated sit-down with Kim Jong-un is expected to be just weeks away. Lee Jin-man / AP
The Korean summit puts the ball squarely in the court of US President Donald Trump, whose much anticipated sit-down with Kim Jong-un is expected to be just weeks away. Lee Jin-man / AP

Since he burst onto the New York property market in the 1970s, Donald Trump has fashioned himself as a brilliant deal-maker. In the 1980s he published a ghostwritten book called The Art of the Deal. And from 2003 to 2015, he portrayed a deal-making executive on the TV show The Apprentice. But since he was elected president in 2016, Mr Trump hasn't actually made any noteworthy deals. Indeed, he has relied entirely on Republican majorities in Congress for the judicial appointments and tax bill which are his only significant achievements.

But now Mr Trump would appear to be on the brink of overseeing not just one but two major new deals, leaving the world with three flawed agreements that can substitute for two disastrous wars, which by any measure is a bargain.

Mr Trump has been threatening to leave the Iran nuclear deal if the European signatories to the agreement – France, Britain and Germany – don't agree to a tougher stance against Iran. Because it's actually working well to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the Europeans are desperate to preserve it.

To stop Washington from pulling out, the Europeans are proposing new sanctions against Iran if it tests missiles of certain kinds and ranges, takes various unacceptable Middle East regional actions, or, as Washington insists, gets within a year of manufacturing a nuclear weapon at any time in the future.

Mr Trump should be able to emerge from this brinksmanship by the May 12 deadline with just such a supplementary agreement with the Europeans.

That wouldn't change the Iran nuclear deal at all but it would strengthen the western stance towards Iran. Mr Trump could therefore claim that, through this secondary agreement, he has "fixed" what he calls the "worst deal ever" and trumpet a triumph while in fact remaining in precisely the same arrangement with Tehran.

This would be a tacit admission that the nuclear deal has been effective so far in preventing Iran from building a nuclear warhead and simply needed some augmentation. But the master salesman will convince many people he has salvaged victory from defeat. And indeed, getting Europe to be tougher on Iran is useful, although it is hardly comparable to preventing a nuclear-armed Tehran.

An agreement with the Europeans to preserve the Iran deal is almost certainly necessary preparation for Mr Trump's negotiations with North Korea, which is already a full-blown nuclear power. Some Trump supporters argue that abandoning the Iran deal would demonstrate strength and show that Mr Trump won't stick with a bad agreement so Pyongyang had better negotiate earnestly. But in all likelihood, it would only tell North Korea not to bother making any serious commitments.

That might well be Pyongyang's attitude anyway. Mr. Trump says he is pursuing the denuclearisation of North Korea and claims Pyongyang is open to this. But there is no chance whatsoever of Pyongyang giving up its nuclear arsenal.

Nonetheless, a third nuclear agreement is so obvious, unless one is determined to actually resolve the nuclear North Korea conundrum, that even Mr Trump can hardly fail.

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His bombast notwithstanding, war is the last thing Mr Trump wants. The Syria missile strike a few weeks ago showed how careful he is in avoiding conflict. Washington essentially provided the fireworks at Bashar Al Assad's victory celebration and confirmed that Russian – and even Iranian – deterrence is highly effective. Mission accomplished indeed.

So, along with Kim Jong-un, Mr Trump can announce that North Korea promises to denuclearise while the United States agrees to seek full relations and a peace treaty.

Neither will happen.

But Pyongyang will continue to suspend long-range missile testing and, perhaps genuinely, commit to not pursuing a fully-developed intercontinental missile for the foreseeable future. It will probably also destroy some additional, marginally important nuclear assets. Washington will ease sanctions and stop pressuring China and others to squeeze North Korea. And the two Koreas will intensify their own futile reconciliation talks.

Both Mr Trump and Mr Kim will declare victory and so will many other leaders. Mr Trump will demand a Nobel Peace Prize and, given the wretched track record of the committee, he'll probably get one, along with Mr Kim.

Two things however, will not happen. North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. And there will be no genuine reconciliation between Pyongyang and Washington, or Seoul for that matter.

Of the three agreements, the one with North Korea would be the most meaningless and almost fraudulent.

The Iran nuclear deal will continue to function, as it has thus far, despite Mr Trump's hostility. And the auxiliary agreements with the Europeans will be a limited but welcome toughening of the western stance towards Iran's nuclear ambitions and non-nuclear malfeasance.

The North Korea agreement will be almost entirely cosmetic but will also be trumpeted as the greatest diplomatic achievement since the Peace of Westphalia.

Mr Trump will then be presiding over three flawed agreements, although the one he lambasts will still be by far the most consequential and meaningful, that nonetheless forestall two devastating and otherwise probable wars.

Since all parties keenly want to avoid those wars, even the artist of the deal ought to be able to connect these dots.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington DC