By Eleanor Beevor
The moment he announced his withdrawal from JCPOA, Trump made clear that he was hoping to repeat his “deal making” approach to North Korea, this time with Iran. It wasn't a particularly subtle allusion. In the same press conference as the withdrawal announcement, he said: “When I make promises, I keep them. In fact, at this very moment, Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un.”
The idea was to drive home the point that the United States does not back down from its threats. It will, however, keep its word if its terms are submitted to.
This screenshot shows a message tweeted by US President Donald Trump announcing on May 10, 2018 his that historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place in Singapore on June 12. "We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!" Trump said. This is the first ever summit and revealed hours after three American prisoners were released by North Korea and arrived back in the United States. (Eric Baradat AFP/ File Photo)
It is easy to see why Trump got carried away on the apparent success of his dealings with Pyongyang. Late last year, the media was cursing Trump as the man goading North Korea into starting a nuclear war. But by January, South Korean President Moon Jae-In was crediting Trump for driving North Korea closer to the negotiating table than ever. For a time, it seemed Trump's promise to rain down "fire and fury" on "little Rocketman" intimidated North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and persuaded him that de-escalation was his best chance.
Fanfare of good publicity
Trump was able to reap a fanfare of good publicity. North Korea released three American prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. The prisoners were flown home, and posed for photos with Trump against a backdrop of Stars and Stripes as they disembarked the plane. From having been the irresponsible egotist who would get us all killed, Trump instead had his moment as the American hero.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet the three Americans released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, upon their arrival on May 10, 2018 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who have been detained in North Korea. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Trump made some good moves around North Korea. His rapid acceptance of the diplomatic track when Kim offered it, after months of combative rhetoric, was praiseworthy. But it was not Trump’s influence alone that brought this about. And nor should he believe that these tentative steps towards negotiation mean that Kim will be a pushover. Kelsey Davenport, the Director for Non-Proliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Al Bawaba:
“While Trump does deserve credit for upping the sanctions pressure on North Korea, Kim Jong-Un made the overture for talks and will come to the negotiating table based on his own strategic calculation. Right now, North Korea is giving an indication that it is willing to talk, but dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is going to be a long and complex process, one that will require the United States to put something on the table in return.
North Korea views its nuclear weapons as insurance against attack or attempts to overthrow the regime, so Kim Jong Un is going to drive a hard bargain for giving up his deterrent.”
No bargain at all
And if developments continue the way they have been over the last few days, that hard bargain may turn out to be no bargain at all. The planned summit between North Korea and the US, currently scheduled for June 12th in Singapore, has been thrown into doubt. Kim Jong-Un has stated that North Korea will not unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons.
His rapprochement with South Korea has also soured after Seoul took part in US-Korean joint military exercises, and allowed a North Korean dissident to speak in the Seoul National Assembly.
Trump is replaying the same game – he is now threatening to “decimate” Kim if he does not negotiate denuclearization, but he is also offering him “protections that would be very strong”.
Trump may yet salvage the situation and prove that his “Art of the Deal” strategy has a place in foreign policy, at least in certain cases. But Iran is not North Korea, and assuming he can play the same hand in Tehran could prove to be Trump’s greatest foreign policy mistake.
Regime change v. ‘better deal’
Iranians pour fuel on US flags set aflame during an anti-US demonstration outside the former US embassy headquarters in Tehran, May 9, 2018. Iranians reacted with a mix of sadness, resignation and defiance on May 9 to U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, with sharp divisions among officials on how best to respond. Trump's decision to pull out of the landmark nuclear deal marked the final death knell for the hope created when it was signed in 2015 Iran might finally escape decades of isolation and US hostility. (Atta Kenare, AFP File Photo).
Trump’s administration seems to be counting on one of two outcomes in Iran now that America has pulled out of the JCPOA. The first hope is for regime change, preferably through economic collapse. This is meant to be induced by US sanctions, and secondary sanctions that Washington will slap on any companies dealing with Iran that also try to access American markets. This scenario is not completely out of the realm of possibility.
But it is made significantly less likely by Russian and Chinese influence. These countries, both partners to the JCPOA, have respectively the interest, and the economic clout, to offer Tehran lifelines amidst the sanctions.
The second hoped-for outcome is Trump’s “better deal”. He envisages one that will clamp down on Iranian ballistic missile activity, and its proxy forces operating in Syria and Yemen. It would also aim to impose stronger restrictions on Iranian nuclear enrichment capacity. There are any number of obstructions to this scenario within the divided Iranian state - not least the hardliners who are every bit as keen to see the JCPOA’s demise as the hawks in Trump’s cabinet.
But in a nutshell, Trump wants Iran to offer up the core of its foreign policy in exchange for continued sanctions relief. And one does not have to defend Iran’s activities abroad to recognize that is simply not going to happen. Unlike in Trump’s world of business, not everything is for sale in politics. Iran has won gains in the course of its proxy war in Syria that it is not about to give up, especially not when this is tantamount to acceding to Sunni and Israeli influences.
Iranian women march past soldiers stationed outside the former US embassy headquarters during an anti-US demonstration Tehran, May 9, 2018 when U.S. President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015. (Atta Kenare AFP/File Photo)
That brings us to the other reason the Iranian situation is unlike the North Korean one. In Asia, multiple regional actors, including powerhouses like China, kept diplomatic relations with North Korea open, and regularly offered it olive branches.
Kim Jong-Un may have felt insecure. But he had diplomatic recourse, and no regional powers were actually clamouring for war with North Korea. The consistent goal of its neighbours was de-escalation.
By contrast, Iran is surrounded by countries desperately hoping to strike it. Indeed, they already have. Within hours of Trump leaving the deal, Israel had launched missiles against Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. This is only the latest expression of a mood in Israel that war with Iran is inevitable.
And indeed, there is no shortage of rankling for war in Tehran. But now that Saudi Arabia's hawkish Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has also made clear that the Islamic Republic cannot be allowed to stand, he has moved unprecedentedly close to Israel. As a result, Iran feels tremendously vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, it is going to be weighing up the offerings of a weakened JCPOA against the deterrence value of the nuclear weapons it could build if it leaves the agreement.
Whether Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton want a war against Iran isn’t entirely clear. Bolton’s seemingly endless appetite for war, and his fanatical short-sightedness towards Iran suggests he is probably itching for it. Trump, on the other hand, is going to have to think carefully about whether getting tangled in another Middle Eastern war (even if only in support of Israel) is going to go down well with his “America First” supporters.
Either way, it may already be too late. Trump and Bolton are extremely unlikely to get the regime change they want through sanctions alone. And Trump’s “better deal” is a fantasy, built on a shallow comparison with his North Korea tactic. But as that fantasy crumbles, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and a devastating new war in the Middle East, are becoming all the more likely.
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