Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton at NATO Summit in Brussels, July 12, 2018. Ye Pingfan/Press Association. All rights reserved.
In the United States's entanglements with North Korea and Iran there is a common factor: the current initiative belongs not to Washington but to these renegade states. Where the outlook with Pyongyang is for the moment relatively stable, however, with Tehran it is open to escalating conflict.
The Singapore summit in June between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was a notable symbolic occasion. But its outcome revealed a sharp contrast between the US president's claim of a personal diplomatic triumph – with talk even of a Nobel peace prize – and the reality (as seen by many observers) of the young chairman being the real victor (see "Kim vs Don: the Singapore sting", 14 June 2018).
An Oxford Research Group paper highlights Kim Jong-un's record of achievement:
“In the space of just four months he succeeded in stimulating a rapprochement with South Korea through the Winter Olympics, made two visits to the South to meet President Moon Jae-In, and then followed this with a face-to-face meeting with Trump. He combined this with two visits to the Chinese leadership and high-level contacts with Russia, the latter likely to include a direct meeting with President Putin later this year.
While he agreed to progressive denuclearisation, no timescale was set and the very success of the summit and his global engagement meant that it was highly unlikely that sanctions against the country would be maintained at the current high level. Above all, he was able to present a small and highly isolated autocracy as a major player on the world stage and, in diplomatic terms at least, an equal of the United States.”
Trump, perhaps fortunately, still does not realise that the Pyongyang regime continues to set the strategic agenda. Kim Jong-un has made some minor concessions since Singapore, such as dismantling a missile-test site, and pursued his own interests by holding a successful meeting with South Korea’s Moon Jae-In. Moreover, Russia and China are now working on the basis that if Trump says that all is well, trade with North Korea can continue apace as the importance of sanctions greatly diminishes.
The DPRK is also quietly continuing its nuclear and missile programmes, but in a way that cannot be challenged directly. At the same time, it is working to improve its economic relations with South Korea, not least in talks over reopening the Kaesong industrial complex, mothballed in 2016.
In its public atmosphere, all this markedly differs from the US's deep tensions with Iran, from the latter's role in Syria to the multilateral nuclear deal that Washington has now abrogated. Could the North Korea rapprochement be copied? There have been indications that Iran might encourage diplomatic discussions with the United States. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) even signalled in June that Iran's medium-range ballistic-missile programme would stop short of the capacity to reach western Europe, still less the United States.
The ORG analysis saw this proposal as diplomatically meaningful:
"The political symbolism of the IRGC decision, even if it can easily be changed, is that Iran is prepared to engage in discussions on the JCPOA [the nuclear deal, signed in 2015] and its future, knowing that any concessions will be welcomed by the other parties to the agreement. This, in turn, will make it more difficult for the United States and Israel to engage in any direct use of force.
It is by no means impossible that we may yet see Tehran as effective as Pyongyang in dealing with the Trump administration, with President Trump, 'the great deal-maker', finding it less easy to handle the world of international diplomacy than he might have expected."
One eases, the other doesn't
This interplay between the North Korean and Iranian predicaments is moving on, however. The Trump administration's more relaxed attitude towards North Korea is reflected in secretary of state Mike Pompeo's proposed new visit to Pyongyang, and in Trump's statement on 26 September that he has no timeframe in mind for Kim Jong-un to proceed with the regime's nuclear disarmament. Trump, oblivious that the mild derision of the United Nations general assembly towards him is a measure of his diplomatic standing, still believes that such assumed progress is his achievement.
By contrast, his hostility to Iran is unremitting: more sanctions are coming on stream, Trump's two speeches at the UN this week focused on the threat from Tehran, a favoured theme also of national-security adviser John Bolton. If this stance infuriates Iran, neither does it please the other parties to the JCPOA: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany. But it is in tune with two aspects of the US's political culture, one abiding and one temporary: the relationship with Tehran, and the outlook of the White House's chief security personnel.
The first derives principally from the impact of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 which overthrew the Shah: especially the student takeover of the American embassy and the holding of US diplomats as hostages in Tehran for 444 days in 1978-80. That incident, with all its accompanying drama and trauma, has a continuing impact on the psyche of US policy towards Iran (see "Iran vs America: history's scars", 26 August 2018).
The second aspect connects Pompeo-Bolton to North Korea-Iran in a particular way: namely, these two men's awareness that Kim Jong-un has easily outmanoeuvred their boss and insistence that the Iranians must not be allowed do the same. This combines with anger that the JCPOA's western European signatories are now trying to subvert the US sanctions via a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV): a mechanism enabling European companies legally to trade with Iran which, crucially, will include purchases of oil.
Pompeo describes the SPV as "one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable for regional and global peace and security. By sustaining revenues to the regime, you are solidifying Iran’s ranking as the number one state sponsor of terror, enabling Iran’s violent export of revolution, and making the regime even richer while the Iranian people scrape by. I imagine the corrupt ayatollahs and the IRGC were laughing this morning.”
In sum, the abrasiveness around Iran – and in particular, the congested Strait of Hormuz – makes the useful acronym "AIM" (accidents, incidents and mavericks) look more relevant (see "North Korea: a catastrophe foretold", 29 September 2017). The attitudes of Bolton, Pompeo and Trump fuel the uncertainty. It is also worth recalling, however, that the United States armed forces are hugely wary of any kind of war with Iran: a direct confrontation, one involving their Israeli ally, or even both.
This really is a time for cool heads in both east Asia and the Middle East. Where Iran is concerned, western Europe's present leadership deficits – Angela Merkel's weakness, Theresa May's Brexit distraction, and Emmanuel Macron’s fall from grace – bode ill. The uncomfortable reality for the west is that what comes next is more likely to be determined in Tehran than Washington or European capitals. And just one AIM factor could precipitate crisis.