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Is Trump getting it right on North Korea and Iran?

February 17, 2018 at 11:13 am

President Donald Trump gives his first State of the Union address to Congress and the country in Washington, United States on 30 January, 2018 [Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency]

The 45th President of the United States isn’t known for his strategic vision in any area of governance, barring perhaps as an election campaigner. In the field of foreign affairs, it has become commonplace to criticize the Trump administration as short-sighted, hubristic and for imperilling the post-1945 rules-based international order.

These criticisms are correct. Even if imperfect, a system based on international cooperation is far superior one where its absence leads to widespread nationalist competition. In other words, there is a danger that Trump’s “America First” is the starting gun for a global race to the bottom.

There are two areas, however, where Trump’s approach could actually be considered tactically astute. Both revolve around the US’ relations to armed strategic rivals where nuclear weapons are – ostensibly – the US’ primary concern, North Korea and Iran.

North Korea: Strategic Deterrence

Beginning with North Korea, when the Trump’s term in office began Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian regime was already a member of the nuclear club and, though it was not yet able of directly hitting the continental United States, it was well on the way to developing that capability. This was despite the best efforts of the Obama administration to disrupt and sabotage the program.

In contrast to Obama’s tempered and largely more predictable behaviour, Trump has ramped up the hostile language dramatically. Insulting and threatening “Rocket Man” – his name for Kim – on Twitter while ploughing more military hardware into the region.

These appear to be frightening development certainly, but as Oliver Roeder, a writer at FiveThirtyEight, pointed out: “Trump’s bluster could be useful, since there’s no other way for him to signal to the North Koreans how serious he is about stopping them from threatening the US with a nuclear strike.” It is, therefore, arguable that Trump is not only playing the best hand available with respect to North Korea, but his actions are consistent with a long-term US strategy of deterrence.

Iran: Regime Change

Iran poses a distinct set of challenges for US foreign policy makers. It’s not a nuclear state but it is a strategic rival that is capable of harming US interests in the region. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, Iran exploited disruptions in the regional order – specifically in the wake of the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2011-12 spate of uprisings across several Arab states and the violence that followed – to extend its influence and/or challenge the influence of its own regional rivals, principally Saudi Arabia.

But while the Bush administration rejected a potential opening for talks with the Iranian government, under President Mohammad Khatami, shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Obama eventually signed a deal with Iran that effectively curtailed its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

The Nuclear Deal (officially the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) imposed a highly restrictive array of measures on Iran’s nuclear industry, that included comprehensive independent monitoring, exchange for slackening some of the most crippling economic sanctions against the country. Moreover, as well as being one Obama’s defining foreign policy achievements and a centrepiece of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s re-election campaign in 2017, in which he tied the JCPOA to the promises of economic reform and development.

Yet, Trump has denounced the agreement as “the worst deal ever”, and frequently threatens to tear it up, though in practice the administration continues to honour it. At first glance this behaviour is just as erratic and frightening as the “Rocket Man” Tweets and a significant cause for consternation among allies and Iranians.

But this might be precisely the point! By creating uncertainty over the future of the deal, Trump effectively adds another layer of risk for any foreign company that might want to invest into Iran. This, in turn, means that Rouhani’s promised economic recovery cannot take place. In short, Trump’s apparently petty behaviour over honouring Obama’s nuclear deal has the effect of extending the economic sanctions on Iran, while the rigorous restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme remain in place.

To be sure, there are numerous domestic factors that can go a long way to explaining why Iran’s economic recovery has stalled. But Washington’s dithering on sanctions clearly adds to the problem and thus can be seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine the current government of Iran, a potential provocation behind the recent large-scale uprisings across the country.

Of course, one can argue that a downside to such a strategy is that by undermining the relatively reform-minded Rouhani, the US could be bolstering hardliners like the Revolutionary Guards. This may indeed be so. But this outcome need not be contradictory to US strategic interests if one understands that Trump’s is regime change.

Simply put, while the nuclear deal under Obama put the US on a path where it would accommodate a non-nuclear but still actively hostile Iran, Trump’s strategy is designed to undermine the regime entirely. In other words: Trump doesn’t want a soft Iranian ‘frenemy’ he wants a weak, unstable Iran that might even collapse (a tipping point might be whenever the current 78-year old supreme leader passes away).


Neither of these strategies are without risk, of course. Any escalation in tensions ratchets up the chance of an accident or a miscommunication. Such an event involving a nuclear North Korea would surely be catastrophic for obvious reasons. But even a misstep on Iran – which could be more likely, given the proliferation of both US and Iranian interests across the region – could rapidly spiral into another shooting war in the Gulf.

Moreover, the is nothing that guarantees that either plan would work. Trump is now the third President to contend with a nuclear North Korea and the seventh to trade barbs with a hostile Islamic Republic. It is clear then, that even if it’s against American policy and even the wishes of the president to do so, the US manages to accommodate its rivals most of the time.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.