Memo to Trump: Iran Isn’t North Korea
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Memo to Trump: Iran Isn’t North Korea

White House Bullying Isn’t Working on Kim Jong-Un, and It’s Not Likely to Work on Rouhani Either

By the end of the week, Trump plans to announce whether he will tear up the Iran nuclear agreement rather than certifying that Iran is living up to its part of the agreement. So, strap yourself in, because there will be a lot of rhetoric of increasing blast this week:

  • Allies. Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is the latest of European allies due to meet Trump in the White House today in an attempt to persuade the president to keep the agreement, following unsuccessful entreaties by France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
  • PR campaign. Rudy Giuliani, of all people, newly promoted into a position from which he thinks he can speak for the president, told an Iranian-American group over the weekend that Trump favors regime change in Iran. It’s “the only way to peace in the Middle East” and “more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal,” Giuliani said. Of course, the president said last week that Rudy is not in full command of presidential thinking, so I’m unclear why the former New York Mayor was talking foreign policy.
  • Iran’s response. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Sunday that the United States would regret a decision to leave the nuclear pact. “If America leaves the nuclear accord, this will entail historic remorse for it,” Rouhani said in a bellicose, televised speech, according to Reuters. He added that Iran has a plan to “resist any decision” to end the deal, which offers Iran sanctions relief in exchange for halting its nuclear weapons program.

From my perspective, it is difficult to believe that Trump’s various international maneuverings would have left the United States facing simultaneous nuclear weapons development threats on two sides of the world. Trump’s repeated remarks in the last week have suggested that negotiations with North Korea are proceeding well, that three U.S. hostages are on the brink of release, that leader Kim Jong-Un is on the verge of bowing to intense economic pressures by the U.S. into surrendering its nuclear development program.

For what it’s worth, North Korea said yesterday that it was not ceding to political and economic pressure and sanctions, and warned the United States against seeing their intentions as weakness.

Often more thoughtful pieces can provide more context than daily developments. I found it troubling but useful to read a Washington Post opinion column by Colin H. Kahl, security consultant at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Vipin Narang, MIT professor specializing in nuclear strategy issues, who basically argue that Trump is wrong in thinking that the North Korea strategy—Tough Talk and Maximum Economic Pressure—is working, and will work in Iran.

That Trump finds the Iran deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—“the worst deal ever” and “a catastrophe” has been Trump gospel since the campaign. At each quarterly renewal, Trump has agreed only grudgingly. Trump indicated that he would probably fulfill his campaign pledge to scrap the deal renewed this week.

The pair dispute that the U.S. pressure campaign is “the primary driver of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s willingness to bargain, nor is there much reason to believe that Pyongyang is ready to completely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Trump’s faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations could doom prospects for peacefully deescalating one nuclear standoff —and applying these misguided lessons to Iran could manufacture yet another.”

They argue that “there is no evidence that North Korea feels weak, economically or otherwise. And there is no indication that Kim is willing to surrender his nuclear arsenal for economic benefits, security guarantees or any other incentive Trump might offer.”  While Trump believes that Kim is coming to the table out of weakness, Kim almost certainly believes he initiated his successful “charm offensive” out of strength. “Trump thinks he can walk away with Kim’s nuclear weapons, while Kim thinks he can walk away having been accepted as a de facto nuclear power by the president of the United States. Only one can be right.”

The column argues that the prospect of North Korea dismantling its atomic arsenal anytime soon remains slim, the recent Korean summit in the demilitarized zone notwithstanding. It is not clear what denuclearization means to each of the parties involved.

John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, has called for a “Libya model ” of denuclearization for North Korea, where the United States would take custody of the weapons. It would seem more realistic to hope that diplomacy can produce a verifiable and permanent end to nuclear testing, a reduction in nuclear and missile capabilities over time, and a process that deescalates tensions on the peninsula.

The same tough talk approach will be more difficult in Iran. For openers, the allies are suggesting that while they share a belief that the agreement should go further toward a permanent ban on nukes and cover other aggressive actions by Iran, they are unlikely to support full economic sanctions to get them. The Iranians have little incentive to a new limiting agreement. And while Israeli intelligence last week showed off tons of documents to support the belief that Iran had been working on weapons development, the documents did not suggest violations.

The column suggests that Trump does not understand Iran and is making policy based on a caricature.

“Trump’s attempt to replicate what he sees as a successful North Korea-style pressure campaign against Iran could fail, producing this instead: less-effective international efforts to contain Iran, an expanding Iranian nuclear program and no obvious diplomatic path for resolving this wholly manufactured crisis, the column said.

Perhaps the most severe criticisms in the column concern the idea that success in these areas generally is the result of slower, more considered, diplomatic and multinational steps that build slowly but steadily.

That idea clashes with Trump’s way of blasting towards an immediate, negotiated settlement against military and economic strength. “If Trump instead approaches both countries through his maximalist ‘Art of the Deal’ mentality, expecting that bluster and threats will lead to complete capitulation by the other party, he will be sorely disappointed. And worse: He will accelerate not one but two nuclear crises—and close off peaceful, diplomatic avenues for resolving either of them.”

Keep tuned.


May 7, 2018