Donald Trump’s stances on Iran, North Korea difficult to reconcile

Clearest narrative may be that US cannot always be trusted to uphold its commitments

To hear US president Donald Trump tell it, his approach to North Korea and Iran, marked by unpredictability and opposition to the diplomacy and compromise of his predecessors, will end the nuclear desires of both countries once and for all.

Imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea will persuade it to dismantle its arsenal, Trump has said. And a decision by the United States to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal will, he said last year, “ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon.”

But Trump’s actions could convey a very different message to the world than the one he may wish to send. By pledging to break one nuclear deal just as he enters negotiations for another, Trump risks sending the message that US promises are empty, giving adversaries little reason to make concessions.

By punishing Iran even after it froze its nuclear programme but agreeing to meet with the leader of North Korea just months after it fulfilled many of its nuclear ambitions, Trump could inadvertently convey the message that rogue states are best served by defying and threatening the US.


And by threatening to blow up any deal that does not meet his sometimes inconsistent demands, he may win some concessions at the expense of undermining America’s traditional role as a mediator and convener of negotiations, which Washington has relied on to promote its interests in international forums.

Trump’s stances on Iran and North Korea appear, at first, difficult to reconcile. North Korea has barreled ahead with its weapons programs, testing nuclear devices as well as long-range missiles that appear capable of striking major US cities. It has achieved what no country has since China developed its own program a half-century ago: a nuclear deterrent against the US.


To stall or reverse those gains, Trump has issued threats and imposed sanctions on North Korea, but for the most part his responses have not been that different from those of previous administrations. His major break with diplomatic orthodoxy was to agree to a direct meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. The North has long sought such a meeting as a way to portray itself as a peer of the great powers.

Among Korea experts, Trump’s approach has won the greatest support from left-leaning doves. Iran, meanwhile, has kept its nuclear program frozen and continues to accept international inspections, according to the international watchdogs and US intelligence officials who have repeatedly said the country is complying with its obligations under the 2015 deal.

But Trump has repeatedly threatened Iran and pledged to withdraw from the agreement or impose sanctions that would abrogate US commitments. He has won cheers from hawks on Iran who oppose the deal.

How to square these inconsistencies? Within the United States, the most common explanations draw on Trump’s personality or on domestic politics. Perhaps he opposes the Iran deal because he was not the one to close it, for instance, but he can support a North Korea deal that would bear his signature.

But foreign states do not have the luxury of shrugging off the US president’s thinking as an inscrutable mystery. They must stitch together a narrative with which to predict behavior.


The clearest narrative may be that Americans cannot necessarily be trusted to uphold their commitments. Trump has broken or withdrawn from several other international agreements but they can be, as Kim showed, coerced and deterred. The nuclear lessons may be starker. Dismantle or freeze your program on assurances from the United States, and those assurances may be broken. Accelerate your program in open defiance of international agreements, and the US president will offer to meet with you.

Trump said on the campaign trail that his businesses had succeeded in part because, in negotiations, he had relied on bluffing, threats to walk out and ruthless, zero-sum transactionalism. He had sometimes refused to fully pay contractors, including those working for his campaign. He sued Deutsche Bank in 2008 to escape $40 million in personal loan guarantees. Confronted with a copy of a tax return suggesting that he had not paid federal income tax in some years, Trump retorted, “That makes me smart.”

He has said he would apply his approach in business to foreign relations, pledging to extract maximum concessions even from allies. Unpredictability and threats would keep other leaders guessing, forcing them to deliver concessions, he said.

Trump would not have to look long for countries that have deployed this strategy: Iran and North Korea have pursued more extreme versions for years. Still, this approach comes with costs. Defence secretary Jim Mattis said this week of the nuclear agreement with Iran that “it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat.”

The deal, although signed by several world powers, hands considerable discretion to Washington over when and how to punish any Iranian cheating. In this way, it highlights the difference between how the world treats countries it considers unreliable, like Iran, versus those seen as steady and transparent.

Should talks with North Korea lead to a written agreement, no one expects its text to treat the United States with the distrust that the 2015 agreement treated Iran. But it is difficult to imagine America’s allies once again investing Washington with the authority they handed it over Iran. - New York Times