Memo to Trump: Iran Isn’t North Korea

Trump’s ALL CAPS Twitter threat against Iran – “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED” – feels like a cut-and-paste job from his approach to North Korea. Apply sanctions, make irresponsible suggestion of Armageddon, see what happens.

Like an arsonist who puts out his own fire, the president’s desultory results on North Korea have reduced the fears he stoked of imminent war, but have not even mapped a course to cap and eventually roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

Trump’s North Korea policy has largely failed to advance U.S. interests, as even the president seems to recognize in private. Trump declared victory, but the North Koreans have neither taken steps toward denuclearization nor committed to do so. They are implementing a very partial freeze of some of their more provocative behavior, such as missile and nuclear testing. That is good news but comes at too high a price: sanctions enforcement is weaker, we have halted military exercises and strained our alliances, and Kim Jong Un has escaped diplomatic isolation. All of that leverage could have been better used. At least Trump has stopped threatening war on the peninsula – probably the best possible outcome for now.

Trump won’t be able to play this game with Iran.

There will not be a “grand bargain” between Washington and Tehran. Not only is Trump viewed as an unreliable negotiating partner for capriciously killing the nuclear deal, but Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional proxiesare the foundation of a national security policy rooted in the hard lessons of the Iran-Iraq war. Trump can’t simply “Art of the Deal” these issues away; doing so would require regional security solutions that are simply implausible given current tensions.

Also, despite what Trump may hope, there won’t even be a Gulf version of the Singapore Summit: a made-for-TV drama that lowers hostilities without addressing underlying problems. Two obstacles stand in the way: us and them.

First, Iran. Even if Trump were to offer Iranbetter deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by President Obama – for example, more sanctions relief in exchange for superficial additional nuclear concessions – it is not clear that Iran would be capable of managing its internal political divisions and accepting it.

Iran’s politics are more complicated, or certainly more public, than North Korea’s. Both Tehran and Pyongyang have relied on enmity with the U.S. for legitimacy, but Kim can simply change his regime’s propagandawithout fear of being contradicted. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei may have the title “supreme leader,” but he has nothing like that level of totalitarian control. Any effort to change Iran’s relationship with the U.S. would meet fierce and effective opposition from power centers in the regime that profit from its ongoing conflict with “the Great Satan.” And Trump has only made it more politically dangerous to accept a deal with the U.S. and face accusations of surrendering to his hostile terms.

Second, American politics are less forgiving on Iran than on North Korea. Trump has repeatedly lied about what happened in Singapore with little political consequence. There was his absurd claim that “North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat,” and his June 20 boast that North Korea had returned the remains of 200 U.S. soldiers (the real number then – and still today – is zero). Some Republican elected officials have been critical, but they have not insisted on hearings, classified briefings, or any real action to assert Congress’s oversight role.

It is hard to imagine Trump – even Trump – would have similar freedom of action on Iran. Bluntly, Japan and South Korea are not Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have real clout in Washington and within his political base. If the president tried to exaggerate Iranian concessions, he would be called on it by domestic and international constituencies that make up an important part of his support.

If Trump’s wild rhetoric toward Iran does not offer a way forward either toward a deal or to de-escalation, where is he leading us? To isolation or confrontation.

If Europe and the other remaining participants in the JCPOA can find a way to keep buying Iranian oil and processing Iranian financial transactions despite U.S. sanctions, Washington will simply lose more influence and leverage. If Europe and the other participants fail to sustain a rump JCPOA, Iran will certainly return to nuclear provocations.

Either way, Trump is taking a problem and turning it into a crisis. His administration clearly has no more coherent, feasible strategy toward Iran than it does toward North Korea. This makes the Iranian edition of his “fire and fury” all the more bizarre and dangerous.


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