By Samuel Hickey
An air of mystique was cultivated by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chairman of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong Un in the days leading up to the June 12th Singapore Summit.
The two showmen always cater to their domestic audiences whether they are at odds – “Little Rocket Man” and “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” – or when they are chummy like in Singapore – with surprising compliments and magnanimity between the global hegemon and international pariah State.
Trump and Kim’s one-on-one meeting was coated in secrecy with hints dropped to the press corps in a teasing manner, but in Trump’s longest press conference to date the most substantive change was announced: the U.S. would stop joint military drills or “war games” with South Korea.
It remains unclear if South Korea was warned beforehand so the geopolitical ramifications to the DPRK’s neighbors cannot be fully assessed. The other surprise arrived in the signed joint-statement amidst the broad goals of the new relationship, which noted that U.S. troops would return to the DPRK to recover POW/MIA remains from the 1950-53 Korean war.
U.S. troops on DPRK soil is a stunning admission in light of the previous tension and provocative moves by both sides.
The signed document offered four commitments/confidence-building measures, and while there are few surprises on paper, the diplomatic effort must now be supported by experts and the international community to ensure a lasting accord:
The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
Beyond the broad statements articulating their end goals, Trump acknowledged his evolving comprehension on the amount of time it takes to denuclearize (which still remains undefined for the two parties) but noted that the process would begin with all haste.
Negotiations over the DPRK’s nuclear program have been conducted for the past 25 years with similar language and very little to show for it.
The Singapore Summit initiated Trump’s personal engagement in the confounding diplomatic efforts beyond egregious rhetoric, and the experience cements the conclusion that Trump believes he is the variable to alter the diplomatic calculus.
It is not a better diplomatic plan, a coalition of negotiating partners or new diplomatic language, but his personal relationship with Kim that will change history. Either way, the current confrontational U.S.-DPRK relationship is unsustainable and the admissions by both sides offer room to build trust; diplomacy in place of nuclear conflict must be supported.
A walk in the Park, Singapore, June 12th. /AFP
Iran and the DPRK
Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the now P4+1 preceded this Summit by about a month which has left the international community scrambling to incentivize Iran to remain compliant.
There is no clear path for diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to overcome their differences, and certainly no summit between President Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei or President Rouhani is on the horizon.
The differences between Iran and the DPRK are multifold spanning their history, neighboring countries, and relations with the U.S., but the JCPOA and Trump’s theoretical diplomatic agenda for the DPRK have been the key point of analysis. The differing regional aspirations for Iran and the DPRK received coverage in the conventional news outlets but the influence of foreign governments on the perceptions of these threats went largely unnoticed.
The true aspirations of Iran and the DPRK encompass the meat of the intelligence community’s (IC) assessments of their threats, but the assessments remain classified and the sitting U.S. President is very comfortable ignoring his own IC. U.S. diplomatic efforts are subject to intense domestic and foreign lobbying as a narrative is constructed and the DPRK does not face nearly the same threat to their perception by regional adversaries in Washington that Iran does.
Iran’s Neighbors Influence in Washington
The Saudi PR machine, in the UK and Washington, is formidable. /Al Bawaba
It is impossible to calculate the currency of personal relationships that sway leadership, but the lobbying and PR expenses are made public. Those campaigns push a narrative not only to the U.S. congress and White House but to the American people. In 2016, as the Presidential election was in full swing, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Israel were looking to reset relations with the U.S. after a contentious relationship with the Obama administration.
The KSA fought hard to prevent the passing of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows the families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to sue the KSA; it passed, overriding a presidential veto in September 2016. Prime Minister Netanyahu was particularly incensed by the JCPOA and went so far as to lobby Congress directly in 2015 to halt it.
Iran’s political rehabilitation represents a formidable economic threat to Israel and the KSA, but the public roe has been over their political agendas. Iran has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, with numerous sanctions since 1979, and international sanctions building up to their final release in 2015.
This leaves immense untapped potential in Iran’s market and capitalism needs new markets to continue to grow, but all of this is jeopardized as Trump seeks to implement new sanctions. Israel’s economy is meeting expectations but does not have the untapped potential of Iran or the ability to grow. The KSA economy remains heavily reliant on oil exports and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi 2030 Vision will have to ensure youth employment in the future.
The normalizing of relations with Iran and allowing trust to build between Iran and the West represents a serious economic threat to Israel and the KSA. The concern being that it would be easy for Europe, Russia, China, or the U.S. to prioritize Iran’s economic opportunity over Israel and the KSA’s; with economic relations comes political rehabilitation and Iran could cement its role as the regional hegemon which would represent the greatest threat to Israel and the KSA.
Trump's first oveseas visit was to Saudi Arabia. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, also attended. /AFP
Throughout 2016, Al-Monitor’s Middle East Lobbying: The Influence Game project collected the publicly reported funds spent by foreign governments and their lobbying groups, and while the funding fights for a broad array of issues, the cultivation of a narrative on Iran as an existential threat by the KSA and Israel in the U.S. was potent.
Israel spent $6.4 million, the KSA spent $14 million while Iran spent just $230,000 before firing one of their two lobbying firms as competition is futile. Trump’s first 18 months prove the success of these lobbying campaigns with Trump selecting the KSA for his first official visit abroad, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and reneging on the JCPOA and the implementation of fresh sanctions on Iran; clearly Israel and the KSA have Trump’s attention.
The dynamic of competition for regional hegemony is a massively complicating factor for diplomatic efforts, even for a global hegemon like the U.S, as negotiations impact the security interests of neighboring countries; thus, possibly the regional order. South Korea’s admission of the U.S.’s THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to counter the DPRK missile threat caused alarm from China and the imposition of informal sanctions on South Korea due to its security implications for China.
Security moves that are purportedly focused on one target influence the defensive agenda of neighboring parties, and tensions between the global hegemon and regional hegemon can flare up when respect for the regional hegemon is not duly considered.
The Middle East is not only politically volatile with tragic conflicts displacing, killing and psychologically distressing civilians in Syria, Yemen and Libya, but the struggle over the regional order is heavily politicized.
Claims of antisemitism and sectarian racism vie for the definitive lens while these same governments crackdown on protestors to ensure stability. The regional order of the Middle East is in such a constant state of flux that stability remains the most valuable currency to the U.S, and Israel and the KSA have made it their mission to prove they cannot coexist with Iran, the regions irrational actor.
A successful lobbying campaign can thwart negotiations on any subject with the imposition of a new defining narrative; even if say Trump already ruled Iran compliant with the JCPOA twice and there is no evidence that anything changed following that certification.
The KSA has asserted a sectarian lens as it lobbies for at least tacit U.S. support for its war in Yemen against the Houthi’s; the Houthi’s practice Zaydi Islam, a Shi’ite sect, and the KSA has gone to great lengths arguing Iran backs them. Israel has pushed for more normalized dealings with its Arab neighbors – not including the Palestinians – but has singled out Iran as an existential threat not only to itself but to the U.S. too.
Iran seeks regional leadership if not hegemony in the Middle East and Islamic world while hegemony is not a possibility for the DPRK with Russia and China as neighbors. This cannot be over emphasized because the question of security assurances is the crux of nuclear weapons programs negotiations.
Iran was willing to accept the most intrusive inspections and caps on its nuclear energy program in exchange for the alleviation of economic sanctions and the gradual normalization of relations with the international community. The culmination of the JCPOA proved that Iran was a rational actor that valued its economic security over nuclear weapons and could negotiate with the world’s foremost powers.
This was a great source of pride for Iranians. Iran’s ballistic missile program was not on the table but that removed the necessity of providing Iran security assurances because it can adequately defend itself against regional adversaries.
Security assurances for the DPRK are far more necessary. Not only to assuage concerns that the U.S. would seek to remove the Kim regime, but the DPRK must contend with Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan as neighbors and future threats from any of these countries would be overwhelming
The question of hegemony or simply playing a leadership role in the region is easily politicized and it is this narrative that the KSA and Israel have capitalized on. Iran seeks to be apart of the conversation in the development of the regional order so that they can maintain their own defensive security just the same as the KSA and Israel.
However, the narrative they are peddling argues Iran is an irrational actor that seeks their decimation, and an irrational regional hegemon threatens the international order. Israel and the KSA cannot coexist with such an irrational actor and the U.S. cannot allow it as the supervisor of the international order. The DPRK on the other hand does not seek such a status, but it is still very unclear if Kim is truly willing to move forward with some definition of denuclearization.
As political pundits speculate on Trump’s handling of the DPRK versus Iran, it is vital to recognize the millions of dollars at play in the U.S. that are fueling a speculative narrative created by insecurity.
Hegemony defines the regional order and Iran’s pariah state rank has fostered immense interest by the capitalists which makes it particularly concerning to the reigning Middle Eastern leadership. The DPRK does not face nearly the same foreign influence on its perception in Washington and with no interest in hegemony it may just survive diplomacy with the U.S.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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