Gary Samore | Executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former member of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (2015–2017), former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction under president Barack Obama, and former special assistant and senior director for nonproliferation and export controls under president Bill Clinton

Logically, the standoff with North Korea should strengthen the nuclear deal with Iran. Officials inside the Trump administration who recommend keeping the Iran deal in place (as long as Iran complies) can argue that the United States should focus on managing the difficult and dangerous North Korea threat and avoiding a new nuclear crisis with Iran. Moreover, they will argue that if President Donald Trump abandons the Iran deal, it will create a new source of tension and disagreement with China and Russia, who are both essential for effective U.S. policy towards North Korea.

In the end, however, the situation with North Korea is unlikely to be decisive. Whether or not to continue to adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran, will depend primarily on arguments about trans-Atlantic relations, broader U.S. strategy in the Mideast, and specifically on how best to counter Iran’s threats in the region.


Mansour Farhang | Author and former academic, serves on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch/Middle East, member of the Columbia University Middle Eastern Seminar, former professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Bennington College in Vermont, onetime adviser to the Iranian Foreign Ministry and ambassador to the United Nations

The recent nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea had no impact on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran. North Korea had already joined the club of eight countries possessing nuclear weapons. The best Washington can hope for is to negotiate with North Korea to freeze or limit its missile and nuclear testing. To achieve such agreement, the United States must secure China’s full cooperation and offer North Korea significant economic incentives.

In contrast, Iran, due to effective international economic sanctions imposed on it, was compelled to significantly limit its nuclear weapons program before reaching the threshold stage. So long as the International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. intelligence agencies confirm that Iran is fulfilling its JCPOA obligations, it is highly improbable that Washington will move to discredit the agreement.

The Trump administration accuses Iran of violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has responded by claiming the same with regards to U.S. treatment of the accord. The truth is that the text of JCPOA has no “spirit,” implicitly or explicitly. Both sides use the word as a rhetorical ploy in their regional rivalry. President Donald Trump wants to connect the JCPOA’s viability to containment of Iran’s military, ideological, and political influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, to justify non-nuclear economic sanctions against the Iranian regime. Iran, in turn, claims that such sanctions and U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in its geopolitical-sectarian confrontation with Iran violates the “spirit” of the JCPOA.

Confirmation of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA over the past two years has significantly improved support for the accord in the U.S. Congress and among the country’s informed public. This change is best illustrated by the fact that Trump’s secretary of state, defense secretary, and national security advisor, as well as the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, openly favor the accord. The opponents of JCPOA who advocate regime change in Iran hope that the new economic sanctions against Iran and Trump’s provocative threats will push Tehran to withdraw from the JCPOA.


Gareth Smyth | Chief Iran correspondent of the Financial Times in 2003–2007.

Speeches during the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani from both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and Rouhani himself, stressed Iran’s desire to expand diplomatic relationships worldwide. Rouhani has said that Iran prefers to maintain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with other signatories—Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—even if the United States abandons it.

Tehran’s willingness to restrict its nuclear program under the JCPOA contrasts strongly with North Korea’s expansion of a weaponized program outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unlike North Korea, Iran has a varied pattern of trade and wants to increase oil and gas exports (it has the world’s largest combined hydrocarbons reserves) and attract international investment. The $5 billion agreement with Total in July to develop phase eleven of the South Pars gas field and two agreements worth as much as $19 billion to purchase passenger aircraft from Boeing, agreed last December and in June, are important achievements for the Rouhani government.

Trump’s unpredictability is making it easier for Tehran to convince other signatories of the JCPOA that it is not the guilty party. While Trump has accused Iran of violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA, he has reluctantly accepted Iran’s compliance, as certified seven times by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The extent of Trump’s reluctance to do so in July was revealed by leaks to media outlets, raising doubts about what will happen when he is next required to certify the agreement in October.

New U.S. sanctions against Iran over its missile program have strengthened the arguments in Tehran from critics of the JCPOA. Hence Rouhani’s recent speech to parliament threatening that Iran might expand its nuclear program in response to U.S. sanctions was partly aimed at domestic opinion. It was also an appeal to Europe, Russia, and China to view Washington as an unreliable negotiator. But Rouhani’s unusually strong language—speaking of Iran’s ability “in an hour and a day” to expand its nuclear program beyond the levels reached before the 2015 agreement—may well embolden those in Washington wanting a tougher approach.

For now, Iran is set to maintain the JCPOA. One option might be to resume uranium enrichment beyond the 3.67 percent level set by the JCPOA, bringing Iran closer to the far higher levels required for a weapon. But this would be a serious step for Iran’s leadership and would not be done lightly, especially as it might play into Trump’s hands.


David DeBartolo | Visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on sanctions issues

In the United States, the standoff will reinforce existing views of the nuclear deal. Those for whom the deal was a triumph of diplomacy will see the standoff with North Korea as an affirmation of this, because the deal deferred and potentially prevented a similar confrontation with Iran. By contrast, those for whom the deal is flawed are likely to see the standoff as a preview of conflicts to come after the Iran deal’s restrictions relax.

How the U.S. acts in the standoff will dramatically affect its leverage over Iran, because many of the countries with intimate interest in the Korean peninsula—including South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia—are also important players on Iran. If in the standoff the U.S. implements a clear and credible policy, consults closely with its regional allies, and engages responsibly with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, then it will maximize its options for addressing the Iran deal.

Conversely, ripping up the Iran deal without clear and convincing evidence of substantial Iranian noncompliance would weaken the U.S. in dealing with North Korea. It would hamstring negotiations on its nuclear program by undercutting U.S. credibility to deliver on its commitments, and it would jeopardize stronger multilateral sanctions on North Korea by diverting attention away from this most acute proliferation crisis.