U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday that she “never thought the Iran deal could be fixed.” Even so, the Trump administration spent months consulting with other countries on ways to improve the agreement, before the United States withdrew from it entirely in May and reimposed sanctions on Iran. “You could change it to be a better deal, but you couldn’t change it to be a good deal,” she said during an appearance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
In explaining why she felt the Obama-era pact to restrict Iran’s nuclear-weapons program was so problematic, Haley described Iran as part of the Trump administration’s broader challenge of confronting nuclear proliferation among U.S. adversaries. “Look at North Korea. Look at how we’re pulling teeth to get them to stop” their nuclear-weapons program, she noted. “We’re not gonna get Iran to stop [once it acquires nuclear weapons]. Russia’s building up [their nuclear-weapons arsenal], China’s building up theirs. We have to defend America at every turn.”
“You give literally millions of dollars” in economic relief to Iran “and they don’t stop their ballistic-missile testing, they don’t stop selling arms, and they continue to support terrorism,” Haley continued. “I look at [Iran] as the next North Korea. If you continue to fund this, and they continue to do these bad acts, and no one holds them accountable, we one day are going to be talking about Iran the same way we talk about North Korea.”
Yet the course the Trump administration is pursuing with North Korea—imposing sanctions to pressure Kim Jong Un into negotiations over his nuclear program—is remarkably similar to the course the Obama administration pursued for years ahead of the Iran deal. Given widespread skepticism among experts that North Korea will ever entirely denuclearize, moreover, it’s possible that the best deal Trump could get with the North would essentially freeze its program in place, though Trump officials including Haley insist they are seeking nothing less than North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Such a freeze would leave the the North Korean nuclear program in a more advanced state than Iran’s is today. (U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that North Korea possesses dozens of nuclear weapons; there’s no public evidence Iran has any.)
Still, Haley said the United States isn’t alone in considering the Iran deal fundamentally flawed, even if it may seem that way. “Honestly the other countries [who were parties to the Iran deal] came to me and said ‘We know. You’re right.’ But because everybody loves the deal, and their handprints are on it, and they have to say it was successful, they were tiptoeing around all of these things,” Haley said. “They just don’t want to admit they were wrong” even though “they had good intentions.”
Haley acknowledged that the Trump administration’s talks with North Korea have hit a rough patch. On Friday Donald Trump abruptly canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea, citing insufficient progress on North Korea’s denuclearization, and North Korea appears to largely be persisting with the development of its nuclear program even as it negotiates with the United States over the program’s future.
“When it comes to North Korea, is [diplomacy] moving fast? No. But we never thought it would. We knew this was going to be a slow, tough process,” Haley said. The good news as far as the administration is concerned, she observed, is that North Korea hasn’t tested ballistic missiles in months, and stifling international sanctions against North Korea, which Haley helped orchestrate at the UN Security Council, remain in place. “We have sanctions that basically cut off 90 percent of their trade and 30 percent of their oil. And we’re holding tight on those sanctions. So [the North Koreans] still need financial relief and they’re begging for it.”
“This is still going in the right direction,” she said, adding that “there’s always more we can do [on sanctions] and diplomatically we’ll continue to try and do that.”
Then, however, Haley sounded a strikingly skeptical note. “Look, are [the North Koreans] wishing or maybe changing their mind on denuclearization? It’s possible. But we’re not going to change our mind on sanctions. We’re not going to change our mind on denuclearization and we’re not going to change our posture in terms of how we look at that as a threat.”