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
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
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