President Donald Trump has stunned allies and adversaries alike by accepting North Korean President Kim Jong-un’s invitation to meet with him in May to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The speed with which he made the decision—all of 45 minutes—and even without consulting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has since been fired, was typical of Trump’s unique decision-making style based on instinct rather than reason.
Trump’s decision to meet with the North Korean leader has broader implications in the arena of nuclear non-proliferation. The most important of these is the message this decision has sent to Iran. The irony that the same administration that’s considering imposing fresh sanctions on Iran and withdrawing from the JCPOA—the nuclear agreement that has almost indefinitely postponed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons—is willing to talk directly with a nuclear-capable North Korea hasn’t been lost on the Iranians.
Trump’s divergent approaches towards North Korea and Iran are all the more surprising because where there have been differences between the two countries’ attitudes toward the United States, it’s North Korea that stands out as the more threatening of the two.
Iran has never fought a war with the United States. The closest the two countries have ever come to trading blows was during Iran’s war against Iraq. In that war, when Iraq was clearly the aggressor, it acted as a proxy both for the United States and for Saudi Arabia in their attempts to nip the Islamic Revolution in the bud.
North Korea, on the other hand, fought a very bloody war against the United States and its ally, South Korea, from 1950 to 1953 that led to at least 33,652 American battle fatalities. North Korea has constituted a real military threat, through both conventional and nuclear weapons, to America’s close allies, South Korea and Japan. In addition, North Korea has threatened the US homeland and, according to recent reports, is close to developing an ICBM capability that can reach as far as Washington, DC.
The Chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, confirmed these reports at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In the same hearing, General Dunford categorically declared, ‘North Korea certainly poses the greatest threat [to the United States] today.’
Iran, on the other hand, has never posed a threat to the US homeland or threatened to incinerate American allies, such as Saudi Arabia next door, with nuclear weapons. Its threats against Israel are rhetorical rather than realistic given Israel’s conventional and nuclear capabilities that can inflict tremendous damage on Iran. In fact, it was Israel that constantly threatened Iran with attacks on its nuclear facilities in the run up to the JCPOA.
The principal lesson that Iran is likely to draw from America’s decision to negotiate with North Korea at the highest level, while threatening Iran both with withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of new sanctions, is that it’s North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities that have brought the American president to the negotiating table.
This is bound to give Iranian hardliners further ammunition to attack the Rouhani government for making the compromises it did in relation to Iran’s nuclear program to get economic sanctions lifted. Their criticism implies that had Iran developed nuclear weapons instead of signing away its right to do so, the American president would have gone running to Tehran to negotiate a nuclear deal more favourable to Iran than the JCPOA.
America’s rhetoric about re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as well as Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from the JCPOA while agreeing to negotiate with North Korea at the highest level, has made Iranian moderates such as Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif look stupid in the eyes of an Iranian public still waiting for the economic benefits that were supposed to accrue to them in return for giving up Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump’s sacking of Tillerson, principally because Tillerson had opposed Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and the appointment of Iran-hawk and blatantly Islamophobic Mike Pompeo in his stead, has sent a clear message to Iran that the United States is about to renege on its commitment to JCPOA.
Furthermore, there are reports that another anti-Iran hawk, John Bolton, is likely to be appointed National Security Adviser, replacing HR McMaster. This is likely to strengthen the Iranian sentiment that Iranian–American relations are once again destined to descend into unadulterated antagonism, as was the case before President Barack Obama came to power.
Given President Trump’s predilection for impulsive actions, some American commentators are even predicting another war in the Middle East, this time against Iran. The negative consequences of such a war both for the United States and for the region will be far worse than President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As a leading American analyst commented, ‘Bush went to war against Iraq, not Iran, because he knew that [Iran] was a much tougher nut to crack. If Trump becomes enmeshed in a new war in the Middle East [against Iran], his presidency will almost surely go down in history as a catastrophic failure.’
Mohammed Ayoob is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. Originally published in Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
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