The U.S. president’s way of dealing with Iran and North Korea pushes both regimes to extreme reactions. There is a great danger of deadly misunderstandings.
These days, two world crises that have been unwanted companions in the news for far too long are steering in the same direction. They are North Korea and Iran, and the direction is escalation and conflict. Some, at least in the Gulf, already see a war brewing. We have not come to that yet, but the situation is dire enough. Partly because the question of what is going to happen next depends so much on a man who has neither experience nor a recognizable strategy. What Donald Trump does have is an excess of self-confidence and the belief that he alone can accomplish the big breakthrough.
On one side, we have North Korea. Trump was the first U.S. president to carry out negotiations personally, but even after two meetings, Kim Jong Un refuses to give up his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Trump instead declared the matter to be practically solved. Nobody knows what will happen next. Now Kim is resorting again to his old tactic and is shooting missiles, for now, only short-range ones.
On the other side, we have Iran. Against Europe’s advice and even pleas, Trump terminated the laboriously negotiated nuclear deal. Now a U.S. aircraft carrier and bombers are being deployed to the region. The U.S. economic sanctions are just as effective as bombs, as they are driving Iran to the brink of collapse. The inflation rate has reached 40%. Europe had promised Iran that it would stay the United States’ hand and protect trade. Those responsible knew that they had little chance of success. America’s hand is too strong.
Thus far, it is impossible to detect a predictable criterion for how Trump deals with these problem states. He flings his arms around the neck of one and goes for the jugular of the other. He declared himself “in love” with Kim and promised economic help and a guarantee of survival. Nothing of the kind is in store for Iran. During an unplanned visit, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did assure his EU colleagues that the administration wants “no war.”* However, in Brussels and Berlin, an interview given by Pompeo is being listened to very carefully, as it conveys a concept that sounds suspiciously like “regime change.” This is the old idea espoused by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney after Sept. 11. At the time, Iran, North Korea and Iraq were declared the “axis of evil.” John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor, was one of Bush’s advisers. He is the right man for wrong policies.
Neither Trump's exaggerated regard nor his toughness has led to a solution. No progress can be seen, only a hardening of the situation. So far, Trump has not reacted to Kim’s provocations. It looks as though [Kim] wants to increase the dose until [Trump] can no longer ignore it. Then we will risk a return to the days in which the two nuclear powers openly threatened each other. The Iran situation is even riskier. The mullahs have imposed a 60-day deadline: If Europe does not manage to do anything decisive for trade with Iran by then, the nuclear program will be gradually resumed. The hard-liners in Tehran are already looking forward to this; they do not care about reaching an understanding with the U.S.
Both regimes are betting on the fact that Trump is neither a genius at negotiating nor wants a military conflict. During his election campaign, he promised that the “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally come to an end.” That sounds reassuring. Nevertheless, the truth is that he is under increasingly greater pressure to reach his goals. Therefore, the risk that limits will be tested grows. With rockets being launched and warships within sight, there is a great danger of deadly misunderstanding.
Diplomacy Has Prevented War
Both North Korea and Iran’s regimes are brutal and odious. North Korea has exported weapons of mass destruction to Syria, among others. Iran exploits every opportunity for chaos in the region, Yemen’s civil war being the prime example. Add to that the fact that, according to the EU foreign minister, Iranian hit squads are once again going after opponents of the regime in Europe. Exerting pressure on these states is therefore the right thing to do. However, the “all or nothing” strategy is impractical. Trump has now declared that the Iranian leadership should just call him. He believes in himself, despite the failure with Kim. He has displayed only contempt for all those who previously worked toward solutions. Even so, the ones who employed diplomacy with little steps forward and despite some disappointments have accomplished something: they have curbed conflicts and prevented a great altercation, a war.
Thus far, Trump has nothing to boast about, save for the destruction of an agreement that defused the Iran conflict. The self-proclaimed master of the big deal is playing for increasingly high stakes. Nobody knows how Trump is going to react if he fails. Maybe even he doesn’t know.
*Editor’s note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified. In Russia on May 14, 2019, Pompeo said, “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”