Trump, Iran and North Korea – Tangible connections and implicationsJune 4, 2018 in Uncategorized
Iran and North Korea have long kept an eye on each other’s bilateral relations with the United States. Once card-carrying members of an ‘Axis of Evil,’ whose nuclear ambitions simultaneously brought worldwide diplomatic isolation, economic sanction and public attention, the two countries share lonely experiences that partially inform each other’s sense of diplomatic opportunity. No more so is this the case than with counterproliferation negotiations with the United States — where settled and unsettled arrangements provide useful indicators of opportunity. “The ironies abound,” therefore, as Robert S. Litwak notes, as President Trump withdrew the United States from the settled 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement (otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in the very same speech in which he referenced his speedy negotiations with North Korea. Indeed, many commentators go on to argue that North Korea’s sense of opportunity is now sizeably altered given Mr Trump’s irreverence for international agreement.
If we wish to understand the implications of Mr Trump’s decision for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, however, this argument should not be overstated. President Trump did not, in this instance, display fickleness in his personal commitment to bilateral agreement — he has long made clear his disdain for the 2015 accord and, in clear contrast, regularly displays an eagerness to negotiate with North Korea. Hence Mr Kim’s perception of his counterpart’s credibility is most likely intact and his regime’s sense of opportunity, in the short term, is unlikely to be dramatically affected following U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Instead, the real damage of Mr Trump’s decision concerns the reliability of the United States to abide by its international agreements — and the real display of fickleness lay with the country as a whole. The importance of U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy therefore rests on the North Korean regime’s short-term and long-term agenda, and whether Mr Kim’s concern is for his regime’s immediate or long-term survival. And even if the regime’s priorities solely concern its long-term future (talk of economic integration between North and South Korea, and U.S. investment, certainly suggests this is plausible), the limitations of its bargaining position may incentivise gambling on long-term U.S. reliability. Hence, any argument that centres on Mr Kim’s altered sense of opportunity following U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA deserves several notches of qualification.
Instead, the more tangible implication of President Trump’s decision pertains to his justification to withdraw the U.S. from the JCPOA — rather than the act of withdrawal itself. By couching his decision in terms of the agreement’s breadth (it does not cover the scope of Iran’s malign activities) and depth (its inspections allow for some low-enriched material and are insufficiently robust), Mr Trump set a very high bar for a future North Korean agreement. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced to concede this fact when asked by Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation whether President Trump must reach a better deal with Mr Kim than the one struck by the Obama administration and Iran, replying, “I think that’s the case.” Hence an insufficiently broad North Korean agreement pertaining only to the country’s nuclear programme, or one limited in depth to partial denuclearisation, may face domestic charges of weakness and hypocrisy from opposition members familiar with conservative criticism of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. This high bar is made all the more difficult to reach in light of the C.I.A.’s latest assessment that North Korea does not intend to denuclearise, Mr Trump’s insistence that North Korea is willing to fully denuclearise, and the regime’s penchant for double-crossing nuclear inspectors. In a game of expectations, the president is hardly playing safe.
It should be noted, however, that President Trump is not short of large-scale contradiction and hypocrisy in his public messaging, meaning any ‘sale’ of a North Korean agreement might not accommodate the president’s critique of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Mr Trump’s contradictions survive because they are framed by friendly media outlets as consistent with the president’s agenda, character, victimisation etc., and it is the audience of these outlets — the party-political base — that is the focus of Mr Trump’s sales pitch. Indeed, it is certainly not difficult to imagine how a partial, narrow deal on North Korea might be framed by these outlets and opinion commentators as a ‘win’ for President Trump, following the perceived success of walking away from the JCPOA.
Yet any sale of a North Korean agreement would surely be constrained by these media commentators’ stated reasoning for Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the JCPOA. For instance, in continuing to focus on the agreement’s admittance of limited low-enriched nuclear material, any future praise for a North Korean agreement that involves partial denuclearisation would likely avoid reference to this partiality. Consequently, within this hypothesis, what might be described as a ‘communications gap’ opens up, where fringes of Mr Trump’s political base remain open to hawkish criticisms of a deal that have not otherwise been refuted. These criticisms may arise following a mid-term election defeat, or they may precede a presidential primary or, indeed, a general election. If given enough momentum within the Republican Party (a big if), they may, under certain conditions, incentivise President Trump to distance himself from a North Korea agreement either before or after its public pronouncement.
If we wish to find a triangular connection between the U.S., Iran and North Korea resulting from President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the best places to start looking are therefore Fox News and other base-friendly conservative media outlets. The ‘sale’ of any future North Korean agreement is indirectly affected by these outlets’ portrayal of Mr Trump’s justification for his withdraw from the JCPOA. Hence there exists a thin but tangible thread connecting Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and the fortune of a U.S.-North Korea agreement. Whilst commentators are therefore quick to draw a connection between the act of withdrawal itself and U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, a more immediate, tangible connection between Iran, the United States and North Korea can be found in the justifications underpinning this withdrawal.