Call it “A Tale of Two Dictatorships.” There are two rogue nuclear states in the world (now that Saddam Hussein is gone) and the approach that President Trump (and past American presidents) differs starkly between the two. That difference was on display in recent weeks as the president attacked Iran, both literally and figuratively, while proposing new talks with North Korea.
Two weeks after a drone strike on Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani brought the two nations to the brink of war, Axios is reporting that President Trump has proposed new talks with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. The story cites national security advisor Robert O'Brien, who is quoted as saying, “We've reached out to the North Koreans and let them know that we would like to continue the negotiations in Stockholm that were last undertaken in early October.”
President Trump has met with Kim twice at this point, first in June 2018 and again in June 2019. Despite assurances, North Korea has continued testing missiles. Talks broke down last October when North Korea issued a statement accusing the US of a “hostile policy towards the DPRK.”
Throughout the process, President Trump has maintained a friendly attitude towards Chairman Kim. The president covered for the diminutive dictator’s missile launches, denying that the test launches violated their agreement and showing “no interest” in North Korea’s missile program according to aides. The president even sent birthday greetings to Kim earlier this week.
Contrast President Trump’s behavior towards North Korea with his approach to Iran. After the Soleimani strike and Iran’s retaliatory missile attack, the president said in his address to the nation, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
While both Iran and North Korea are state sponsors of terrorism and international pariahs, the big difference between the two is that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon while Iran does not. Therefore, North Korea is feted while Iran is threatened.
This calculus was undoubtedly under consideration when Iran’s leaders announced the withdrawal from President Obama’s nuclear deal following Soleimani’s death. It is probably clear to Iran’s leaders that they would not be subject to drone strikes if they had their own nuclear weapon.
While Obama’s nuclear deal was a bad idea that, at best, delayed the Iranian nuclear program and always included the possibility of cheating, the IAEA said as recently as May 2019, almost a year after President Trump canceled the deal, that Iran was still in compliance with the terms of the deal. Afterward, Iran began taking progressive steps to breach the deal in hopes of convincing the US to return to the table. Now, Iran has totally canceled compliance which speeds up the timetable for a confrontation over the nuclear ambitions of the mullahs.
Questions in the aftermath of the Soleimani attack have also undercut President Trump’s credibility. The Trump Administration claimed that there was information that the Iranian general was plotting imminent attacks against what President Trump claimed were four US embassies.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper threw the president under the bus yesterday, telling interviewers, “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.″
There are no easy answers to the problems of North Korea and Iran. President Trump’s charm offensive against Kim Jong Un seems to be stymied and the Soleimani attack makes quashing Iran’s nuclear efforts more difficult. Without the deal, there is less time to find a solution and the president’s propensity to bend the truth makes putting together a coalition more difficult.
In the end, neither North Korea nor Iran is ever going to voluntarily end their nuclear programs. They realize that nuclear deterrence may be the only thing that prevents a US-led “regime change” effort or more targeted drone strikes. The two countries will always be willing to talk but the talks will never lead anywhere.
North Korea’s nuclear genie is out of the bottle and won’t be going away short of a long, bloody war. Iran can be stopped but doing so may similarly lead to a prolonged conflict. The irony is that stopping either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs may spur other countries to decide that they too need a nuclear deterrent.
After the 1991 Gulf War, India’s chief of army staff said that a lesson of the conflict was “Don’t fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.” Iran and North Korea have both learned that lesson well.
Originally published on The Resurgent