If the current war of words between Iran and the United States has strange echoes of 2017, it’s because the same US strategy is at work.
The Trump administration is using its North Korea playbook on Iran: Use a “maximum pressure” campaign – the same nomenclature was used for Tehran and Pyongyang – to box the adversary into a corner, then try to negotiate. Respond to a threat by escalating your own threat. Then negotiate to alleviate tensions and claim a win.
In North Korea’s case, it was US President Donald Trump’s now-infamous “fire and fury” ultimatum that kicked off the biggest tensions: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been very threatening beyond a normal state.”
The threat against Iran came in the form of a tweet Sunday: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
Van Jackson, a former official in the Defense Department under the Obama administration and author of “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the threat of Nuclear War,” told CNN that Trump “took a gamble aiming big threats at North Korea, he paid no price for that so far, and so now he thinks he’s a good gambler.”
“Trump has no idea that the North Korean nuclear crisis was the closest America came to nuclear war since 1962. That ignorance is leading him to repeat many of the same impulsive mistakes that nearly brought catastrophe in 2017,” added Jackson.
On camera, Trump took a much less combative tone in an interview with Fox News that aired Sunday.
“I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons, and they can’t be threatening us,” Trump said of Iran.
“With all of everything that’s going on, and I’m not one that believes – you know, I’m not somebody that wants to go into war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly – by far most importantly.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly denied Iran is building a bomb and says weapons of mass destruction are forbidden under Islam.
Answering the same question, Trump also pointed to North Korea as a diplomatic win.
“When I went to North Korea, there were nuclear tests all the time, there were missiles going up all the time, we had a very rough time and then we got along. We’ll see what happens right now,” Trump said.
He continued: “Right now, I don’t think I told them when I left Vietnam, where we had the summit, I said to Chairman Kim, and I think very importantly, I said look, you’re not ready for a deal, cause he wanted to get rid of one or two sites, but he has five sites. I said what about the other three sites? That’s no good, (if) we’re gonna make a deal, let’s make a real deal. But they haven’t had any tests over the last two years.”
The problem is the jury’s still out on whether Trump’s North Korea strategy will ultimately bear fruit. Right now, it’s not looking good.
“It seems very clear that at least the President’s strategy is to ramp up the temperature with, and pressure on Iran, to get them to renegotiate the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal), which he believes was flawed because it allowed Iran to have a (clearly regionally aggressive) foreign policy and some remnants of a defense capability (i.e. missiles) and sunset clauses on enrichment caps,” said MIT professor and nuclear proliferation expert Vipin Narang.
Trump formally abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, to the dismay of both Iran and its European signatories in May, 2018.
“It is dangerous to run the same play on Iran on the mistaken belief that it worked with North Korea, when the evidence is certainly mixed, if not outright contradictory,” added Narang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump left their February summit in Hanoi without a deal and clearly far apart on the parameters needed to seal one.
Trump has openly pushed for an agreement with Kim in which both sides go all-in: North Korea fully dismantles its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in exchange for full sanctions relief.
Kim made clear that he’s unhappy with how negotiations have proceeded since he and Trump failed to reach an agreement in Hanoi. In a speech to the ruling Worker’s Party last month, Kim said he would want until the end of the year to “see whether the United States makes a courageous decision or not.”
“Claiming a win on North Korea when the outcome has been anything but that is dangerous on two fronts: With North Korea because Kim is likely going to keep gradually escalating behavior that the US finds provocative, and with Iran because Trump seems to have internalized his own fact-free narrative about the magic he worked with North Korea,” Jackson said.
To the chagrin of many in Washington, Pyongyang has resumed test-firing short-range ballistic missiles that could potentially carry nuclear warheads. Kim only agreed to stop testing long-range missiles that threaten the US mainland, but short-range missiles in theory threaten North Korea’s neighbors and the US troops stationed there. After the test, Trump said he did not think North Korea was “ready to negotiate.”
Pyongyang has hinted it’s looking for a more phased, step-by-step process in order to build confidence between the two sides. Washington worries this approach could be easily exploited by North Korea.
The catch-22 is that North Korea will likely on get rid of its nuclear weapons program if it has a trusting and stable relationship with the United States. And the US will likely only develop a normal relationship with North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Trump may not have the time to develop that trust, and trashing the Iran nuclear deal – despite the fact that Tehran has been found in compliance of the pact by the International Atomic Energy Agency – put him in a tougher negotiating position.
Trump’s supporters argued abandoning the Iran deal would send a clear signal to Kim Jong Un about the type of deal the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate.
But his critics say throwing it out proved to Pyongyang, Tehran or any other party willing to negotiate with the United States that any agreement might only last as long as the president who signed it.
That’s a big handicap for a president who touts the power of personal relationships in reaching agreements – going as far as saying he “fell in love” with Kim.
Love may not have term limits, but Trump does.