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Trump’s incoherence on North Korea and Iran

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At the end of his visit to the United States last week, French President Emmanuel Macron offered a bit of candor. Despite his entreaties, Macron suspected that President Trump would choose to eventually pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran. The move, said the French president, would have little to do with Middle East geopolitics.

“My view ... is that he will get rid of this deal on his own for domestic reasons,” Macron told reporters, while cautioning that jettisoning the agreement would be “insane in the medium to long-term.”

Macron's conclusion — that Trump is mostly driven to fulfill his campaign promises (and systematically unravel the legacy of his predecessor) — is hardly a novel insight. But it's still apt, especially as Trump champions the cause of diplomacy with North Korea while decrying diplomatic efforts toward Iran.

Trump hails his administration's campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, which he claims formed the backdrop to Friday's historic meeting between North Korean despot Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The summit, which took place on the South Korean side of the DMZ, has led to positive noises about the “denuclearization” of the peninsula and optimism about Trump's own planned meeting with Kim.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on April 27. Here are key moments from the historic talks. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

But if Trump's stated agenda with North Korea comes to fruition, it may not look that different from the nuclear pact he seems intent on scrapping. The deal forged between Iran and a group of world powers in 2015 followed not just months of concerted negotiations, but years of wider diplomacy to squeeze Tehran and bring it to the table.

Even though the pact has effectively curbed Tehran's nuclear program, its critics in the Trump administration say it granted Iran economic relief while doing nothing to curtail its wider role in the Middle East's various conflicts. Yet, at the same time, the White House is possibly creating a scenario in which Kim can win similar concessions for North Korea without doing much to reform his tyrannical rule.

There's a fair dose of speculation now on what may follow with the North Koreans. Pyongyang made a few goodwill gestures over the weekend, including a promise to dismantle its key nuclear-test site. But a host of analysts remain skeptical of the potential for a genuine breakthrough. There have been other false dawns with North Korea in recent history, they point out, and there's still a wide gulf in how both sides envision “denuclearization” taking place.

They also suggest that Trump's potential reneging of the Iran deal will shadow negotiations with Kim. “It is difficult to imagine America’s allies once again investing Washington with the authority they handed it over Iran,” wrote Max Fisher of the New York Times. “Trump is asking Washington’s Asian allies to follow his lead on North Korea just as he is defying European allies who are pushing him to stay in the Iran deal.”

The Trump administration rejects that idea. “I don't think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won't talk to the Americans anymore,’” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters during his debut trip through the Middle East. “There are higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay in the [agreement].”

Still, it's curious that while the United States is now preparing to extend an olive branch to the North Koreans, it has placed itself on a collision course with Tehran. Iran may be a human-rights abuser at home and a destabilizing presence in the Middle East, but it is more open and tethered to the international system than the totalitarian, pariah regime in Pyongyang. And unlike North Korea, it has submitted to thorough international inspections and doesn't actually possess nuclear weapons.

Trump himself has shown little ideological consistency here: Long before he was president, he told CNN in 2011 that talks with the Iranian leadership would be preferable to “killing millions of people.” Holly Dagres, writing for the Atlantic Council, argued that a diplomatic push by the Trump administration to engage Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would disturb the regime's more hard-line elements, including the influential Revolutionary Guard who largely oversee Iran's foreign proxy wars.

“Had Trump taken this nuanced approach, the hardliners in Tehran would’ve been shaken to their core. The potential of good ties with the West, particularly Washington, would hurt their standing in Iranian domestic politics. After all, part of the raison d'etre of the Islamic Republic is opposition to US 'imperialism,'" Dagres wrote. “Instead, hardliners are counting down to the May 12 deadline for Trump to renew sanctions waivers, hoping the president follows through on his threats to withdraw from the [Iran deal]. This would validate their argument that Iran can never trust the U.S. to keep its commitments.”

Perhaps the Trump administration wants this atmosphere of confrontation. Both Pompeo and Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, have called for regime change in Iran. Neither are placing much faith in a nuclear deal with North Korea.

On Sunday, Bolton said the administration was pursuing “the Libya model” with Pyongyang, referring to a process started in 2003 that pressured then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear, chemical and long-range missile program. It was a curious analogy, given that the North Koreans point to Gaddafi's death at the hands of a NATO-backed rebellion as justification for maintaining their own nuclear arsenal.

“It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement,’ much touted by the U.S. in the past,” North Korea’s state media said in 2011, “turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.”

Some analysts suggest that Bolton and his cohort are explicitly setting the table for talks to collapse. “Bolton is willing to entertain some period of negotiations for the sole purpose that, when they fail, he can discredit diplomacy and push for more aggressive solutions,” wrote arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis.

That may allow Trump another potshot at Barack Obama, the president who was ever wary of “aggressive solutions.” But critics are right to be worrying about its profound risks.

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