What will the North Koreans think? That’s the question most tantalizing East Asian scribes as Donald Trump scraps the Iran nuclear deal and prepares to pow-wow with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12.
The fear: Even if Kim is ready to deal in good faith with the US president – and that is still a very, very big “if” – Trump tearing up the Iran pact might give Pyongyang pause. Why trust a White House that proves its unreliability again and again, from South Korean trade deals to climate change agreements to Iran? Trump, after all, isn’t withdrawing from the Iran deal. He’s violating it.
And here’s another question: Might Trump’s kid gloves approach toward the nuclear-armed Kim encourage Tehran to accelerate efforts to build a bomb?
The view from Pyongyang
A central Trump narrative is that Kim is talking to Seoul and Washington because of those “fire and fury” tweets. That Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy moves scared the daylights out of the 30-something North Korean leader.
This could be correct. But this talking point, however, ignores an equally plausible explanation: That having achieved his strategic weapons program goals, Kim is trying his hand at playing America’s narcissist-in-chief.
Of course, these arguments are not mutually exclusive. As of last November, Kim has his nukes and an intercontinental ballistic missile program he can live with. Sanctions, meantime, are biting.
And let us remember: Like clockwork, Pyongyang responds roughly once a decade to its depleted treasury by playing nice and pivoting to the global community.
The last time was under Kim Jong-il; now it’s the son’s turn. Now that Kim Jong-un has achieved his deterrence goals, why not flatter the Trump White House? And – wow! – is it working – Trump speaks as if he and Kim are geopolitical soulmates.
The view from Tehran
Yet here is what Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sees: Trump calling nuclear-armed North Korean tyrant Kim an “honorable man,” while accusing Tehran of acting in bad faith. The takeaway might be that in order to win Washington’s respect, Iran too needs proven nukes and ICBMs. Greater leverage, in other words.
Who really knows? “While nobody could have been surprised by the full-scale commercial warfare launched against Iran by President Trump, his announcement raised more questions than answers,” says Anatole Kaletsky of Gavekal Research.
“The most important question is whether this action will make the world safer or further destabilize Middle Eastern and global geopolitics,” Kaletsky says. “The second question is whether the US enforcement of sanctions will really be as tough as Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and the uncompromising background guidance issued by the US Treasury. Or will Iran turn out to be another case like NAFTA, steel tariffs, North Korea and the Paris climate accord, in which Trump’s bark is worse than his bite?”
As Trump barks, Iran’s bite is now quite the wildcard. At the moment, Rohani is being urged to stick to the terms of the 2015 deal by France’s Emmanuel Macron and other signatory governments. “Under the current conditions, Europe has a very limited opportunity to preserve the nuclear deal, and must, as quickly as possible, clarify its position and specify and announce its intentions with regard to its obligations,” Rohani reportedly told Macron on Wednesday.
Presidential policy U-turns
Iran could be excused for doubting the merits of just going through the motions. Sixteen years ago, then-US President George W Bush sent Tehran one message. It lumped three disparate nations together as the “Axis of Evil” and invaded one. Seeing what happened to non-nuclear power Iraq, Iran and North Korea raced to build their own bombs.
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, sent vastly different signals, only to see Trump transmit yet another whiplash-inducing policy shift.
The risk now is the conflicting signals Trump is sending: warmth and deference to nuclear-armed North Korea, contempt for non-nuclear Iran. All eyes are on how Trump’s carrots will play in Pyongyang. Others should be on how his sticks might soon have Tehran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges working overtime.