Timing is everything as Trump tackles rogue regimes
President Donald Trump must decide by May 12 if the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran, and many signs indicate that he will do so. The sanctions were lifted as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by the Obama administration — a deal that Trump has criticized often for more than two years. Moreover, recent staffing decisions made by the president have led many to believe that he will reinstate sanctions and take a hard stance against Iran. He recently appointed John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Advisor and nominated Mike Pompeo, who also opposes the Iran deal, to be the new Secretary of State.
However, there may be one complicating factor: Timing.
In late May or early June, Trump is expected to meet with Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. From America’s perspective, North Korea poses a more imminent threat than Iran, as it already possesses nuclear weapons and is widely believed to have developed missiles capable of reaching not only South Korea and Japan, but most of the US. For Washington, the current threat of North Korea may take precedence over a future threat from Iran.
Moreover, Iran is threatening but familiar to the US. While Americans know that Iran calls their country the “Great Satan” and unjustly imprisons American citizens, there are exchanges of ideas between the two countries. There are Iranian citizens in the US and vice versa. The US has not had an embassy in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis, but even the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the US to attend the United Nations when he was president. Most of America’s allies maintain normal, if strained, diplomatic relations with Iran. Iranian ideology and political discourse is accessible and understandable. Iran may be dangerous and antagonistic to the US, but it is not closed off.
North Korea, on the other hand, is an enigma. The young dictator Kim, who inherited power from his father and his grandfather before him, is not known by American leaders. His goals are not clear. Pompeo, currently serving as director of the CIA, recently visited North Korea for preliminary negotiations, but North Korea is still considered a “hermit nation.” That is most frightening to the US, because a country with the power of nuclear weapons and a mysterious leader with mysterious motivations is unpredictable.
The question therefore arises of how Trump’s decision on the Iran sanctions will impact negotiations with a nuclear North Korea. Part of this depends on how the upcoming negotiations with Pyongyang are shaping up. During his recent meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump acknowledged that he may not meet with Kim if it does not appear that North Korea is willing to negotiate and cooperate. Yet if the North Korea summit is to happen, the Trump administration will need to create the right impression beforehand.
Today, Iran and North Korea are no more peaceful than they were 16 years ago. In fact, they both appear more belligerent, at least in rhetoric, and more militarily capable
Ellen R. Wald
Perhaps the White House will think it beneficial to make a strong statement before meeting North Korea. In that case, Trump could use a tough stance against Iran to show Kim that he is serious about keeping nuclear weapons away from dangerous regimes. That would mean that Trump reimposes sanctions on Iran and effectively ends the JCPOA deal that he has been criticizing for years.
On the other hand, the Trump administration may think it beneficial to show North Korea that the US can work with rogue regimes. In that case, Trump might not reimpose sanctions on Iran next month. That would make it irrelevant if the US believes that Iran deserves new sanctions, because the decision could be predicated on a desire to send the right message of cooperation to North Korea. Such a decision by Trump would not preclude him from reimposing sanctions on Iran at a later date, but it would help him present an argument for North Korea to disarm now.
In 2002, President George W. Bush described Iran and North Korea as being two-thirds of the “axis of evil.” They represented rogue regimes that aspired to obtain weapons of mass destruction and do harm to the US and its allies. Today, Iran and North Korea are no more peaceful than they were 16 years ago. In fact, they both appear more belligerent, at least in rhetoric, and more militarily capable. Since 2002, neither country has been restrained. Now the Trump administration must take major action on both regimes in a short period of time. North Korea, which is the more advanced and immediate threat, will be watching how the US responds to Iran.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the president of Transversal Consulting. She also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University.