Iran and North Korea are currently considered to be two of the biggest threats to the U.S., according to the intelligence agencies’ Worldwide Threat Assessment.
North Korea has nuclear weapons and an active nuclear program, while Iran has only a small nuclear energy industry that’s currently incapable of producing a weapon.
But policymakers in Washington have long feared Iran could join North Korea as a nuclear-armed adversary.
However, the Trump administration has chosen diametrically opposing strategies to deal with the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran.
How We Got Here
In 2015, former President Barack Obama came together with the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany to enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.
Under the deal, more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Tehran agreed to significantly limit its sensitive nuclear activity. Additionally, Iran agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure it was in compliance in exchange for the U.S. and European countries to lift harsh economic sanctions.
In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.
Daniel Bessner, a historian of U.S. Foreign Policy at the University of Washington, said Trump’s decision to terminate the agreement was largely reactionary.
“There is no doubt that one of the main reasons [Trump] pulled out [of the Iran Nuclear Deal] was to spite Obama and his liberal supporters,” Bessner told The Globe Post.
While the Iran Nuclear Deal succeeded in limiting the country’s nuclear activity, there has been no deal of any kind on denuclearization in North Korea.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, one of his platforms was opposition to Obama’s “strategic patience” policy towards North Korea. Trump maintained that a tough, hawkish strategy towards North Korea would be the best policy, but also said he was open to dialogue with Chairman Kim Jong Un.
But Trump has since drastically changed his tune. Recently, he became the first sitting president to set foot into North Korea during an impromptu visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to briefly speak with Kim.
Obstacles to Deculerization
Some have expressed that Trump’s recent venture over the DMZ indicates that talks between the U.S. and North Korea will resume and possibly lead to a compromise involving denuclearization in North Korea.
But, Thomas Wright, a senior fellow on the foreign policy at the Brookings Institute believes that compromise of that nature with North Korea is highly unlikely.
“[Kim] believes that [having nuclear weapons] gives them additional power, regionally and globally,” Wright said.
He continued, “I think there is no way that [Kim] will give them up unless they are absolutely forced to, but there is basically no way to do that. They have endured famine and all sorts of difficult circumstances, and they’ve never given up their nuclear program. So it’s unlikely that they will now.”
Pushing for War
As the U.S. has maintained a fitful relationship with North Korea, foreign policy experts remain hesitant to push for the U.S. to engage in any war with the country, while many in D.C.’s foreign policy establishment have pushed for war with Iran.
In June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that the country would begin to enrich uranium above the levels they had agreed to in the deal. This was the latest action in a showdown between the U.S. and Iran that has been going on for over a year now.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated significantly last month after Iran shot down an American surveillance drone, which was worth an estimated $130 million. Iran has said the drone violated its airspace, while the U.S. insists it was operating over international waters.
On June 20, Trump ordered a strike in Iran in retaliation before calling it off, reportedly just 10 minutes before it would have been carried out. The president cited a crisis of conscience as his reasoning for calling off the strike, though it has also been reported that Fox News host Tucker Carlson advised the president against the strike as well.
Comparatively, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea escalated significantly in 2017, when North Korea conducted a successful test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In response, Trump warned North Korea that any attack would be met with “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
But in 2018, Trump and Kim met in Singapore for their first summit. Both parties signed a joint statement that agreed to peaceful relations, the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains and denuclearization.
However, following the summit the North Korean Foreign Ministry released a statement, calling the U.S. proposals “unilateral and robber-like demands,” and claimed that North Korean planned to “go against the spirit of the North-U.S. summit meeting.”
The second summit, which took place earlier this year in Hanoi, Vietnam, resulted in Trump walking out before it ended, with no real progress towards denuclearization being made. Talks between Trump and Kim were indefinitely suspended.
Decades of Hostility
Despite the hot-and-cold dynamic between Trump and Kim, D.C., foreign policy establishment are hesitant to push for military action in North Korea.
Bessner explained that there is a much bigger push for war with Iran than with North Korea among the D.C. foreign policy establishment. He said hostility towards Iran has entrenched in think tanks for decades and explained that “there isn’t a similar constituency aiming for war with North Korea.”
Wright offered similar insight, but he addressed the geography of both countries being a factor in why foreign policy experts push for war in Iran, but not in North Korea.
“North Korea … is such a stark case in terms of what conflict would mean,” he said. “Even the most hawkish voices in Washington [D.C.] seem to have pause for talks about what they recommend in North Korea.”
He continued, explaining that North Korea’s proximity to Seoul, South Korea is also a key factor. “There is really no scenario in which one would believe that a war with [North Korea] would be anything less than catastrophic.”
However, Wright also expressed he believed a war with Iran would also be “catastrophic,” but there is “more ambiguity” because of Iran’s geography. “It allows for more room for miscalculation.”
Still, other influences come into play with how the president handles North Korea in Iran.
Both Bessner and Wright said that China’s influence in North Korea should not be overlooked.
Bessner explained that China has significant leverage over North Korea, and its role in relations between North Korea and the U.S. has been “underappreciated.”
China’s President Xi Jinping is unlikely to help facilitate a major agreement between the U.S. and North Korea because he recognizes North Korea is a “thorn in the side” of the U.S.
Wright explained that China’s role is significant in North Korea in terms of “imposing pressure on North Korea with sanctions,” but said it was important to note that “Kim is not a puppet of Beijing.”
Additionally, a key player in Trump’s decisions in regards to Iran is John Bolton, the president’s hawkish national security advisor.
Bolton took advantage of Trump’s inability to think about long term consequences of his actions as president, according to Wright.
“[Trump] is not someone that has long-term in his DNA,” explained Wright. “It seems like he just lives moment to moment, and he just improvises.”
For a considerable time, Bolton’s influence over Trump surrounded their overlapping strategies for maximum pressure in foreign policy. However, according to Wright, that time is rapidly coming to an end.
“I think there was considerable influence because [Trump and Bolton] overlapped, but I think that overlap has sort of reached its limits,” he said.
He continued, “Trump is probably thinking about how he can impose maximum pressure to get leverage that will get [Iran] to negotiate. Bolton was probably thinking about it in a different way, which was maximum pressure to get [Iran] to collapse or for [the U.S.] to enforce change within Iran.”
Wright also expressed that Trump will be less likely to consider war with both Iran and North Korea because “he is most likely looking for something he can package as a win” to voters.
An example of this strategy was Trump’s visit to the DMZ and North Korea, where Bolton was nowhere to be found. Reports have indicated that while the president was making history in North Korea, Bolton was sent to Mongolia.
While Bolton’s influence might be on its way out of the White House, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will consider long term consequences in foreign policy.
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