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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Trump's 'art of the deal' has failed him in negotiations with both Pyongyang and Tehran

The only deal on offer is the bargain-priced replica coin commemorating a summit that might not even take place between the US and North Korea, writes Hussein Ibish

The original commemorative coin designed by the White House Communications Agency. EPA / STR
The original commemorative coin designed by the White House Communications Agency. EPA / STR

On Thursday, as Donald Trump was cancelling his scheduled summit meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the “deal of the day” on the White House gift shop website was a replica of the official summit commemorative coin at the bargain rate of $19.95.

Mr Trump's letter to Mr Kim was a masterpiece of his own unique rhetoric, clearly dictated by the US president himself. Both the coin and the letter would be amusing if so many lives weren’t at stake.

It would be a considerable relief if Mr Trump doesn’t going ahead with the meeting. When both sides are obviously unprepared for major negotiations and, especially, don’t share a common understanding of key terms, disaster can ensue.

At the July 2000 Camp David summit, for example, it emerged that Palestinians and Israelis were describing completely different outcomes when using the same phrase, “Palestinian state”.

Palestinians anticipated a fully sovereign, contiguous UN member state in almost all the territories occupied in 1967, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Israelis had a very different concept of what and where a Palestinian “state” might be and were really proposing what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called a “state-minus” (meaning minus sovereignty and full independence).

The result was the second intifada and 18 years – and counting – of negotiation paralysis.

The key term being lost in translation now is “denuclearisation”.

Under the guise of “denuclearisation”, North Korea has long been ready to falsely promise to gradually eliminate its nuclear weapons and demand being rewarded at every stage for small steps while easing Washington out of the Korean Peninsula to prepare for its forcible reunification under the Kim dynasty.

The Trump administration, as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence bluntly but most unwisely clarified, seeks a “Libya scenario” denuclearisation, replicating the 2003 Libyan agreement to scrap its rudimentary special weapons projects.

That’s never going to happen with North Korea, especially since, as the Koreans themselves bitterly noted, the Qaddafi regime was subsequently crushed and its leader killed.

If anyone wished to deliberately sabotage North Korean negotiations, then framing them as a repetition of the Libyan precedent was perfect, even better than other alarming alternatives like Ukraine and Iraq.

But any chance of an agreement was already sunk by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8.

Mr Trump could hardly accept less from Pyongyang than he had bitterly and angrily rejected from Tehran. But Pyongyang was never going to make anything like Tehran’s concessions because North Korea is a nuclear power whereas before the deal, Iran was about a year from breakout.

Mr Trump says he wants new agreements with both Iran and North Korea and that the meeting with Mr Kim could still go ahead either as scheduled or at a future date but it is hard to imagine how effective negotiations with either country could develop now.

With North Korea, there is a well-established and ongoing system of mutual containment in place. We don’t have to wonder what comes next because we’ve been living with this unhappy arrangement for many decades.

Not so with Iran. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal decisively ended a failed experiment in laying the basis for a potential broader western rapprochement with Iran because Tehran has only intensified its missile development and destabilising regional conduct.

The demands laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, were not serious. If Iran were to agree to his 12 steps, it would be effectively dismantling its revolutionary government and ethos. It would no longer be the “Islamic Republic” that was established in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The underlying logic of Mr Pompeo’s demands was, indeed, regime change.

But Iran’s regime is not going to voluntarily change itself and there is no historical precedent for externally driven regime change in a society that is not already in a revolutionary situation.

There is a lot of discontent in Iran but no obvious alternative to the current regime, which isn’t anywhere near the brink of collapse.

Perhaps a prolonged campaign of financial warfare and other pressure could create such a dynamic in Iran but unfortunately, that’s distinctly unlikely.

And even that gamble would require a level of commitment from Washington that Mr Trump has articulated in words but not demonstrated yet in deeds.

He has sent two contradictory recent messages to Iran. There are the tough words of the nuclear deal repudiation and new sanctions.

But there was also the careful avoidance of Iranian, Hezbollah and core regime targets during the April missile strikes against Syria and Mr Trump’s vows to soon withdraw all US troops from Syrian territory.

Nonetheless, regional containment and rollback of Iran are possible and indeed necessary, even if regime change is not.

This would require strong leadership and tough measures from Washington, which may or may not be forthcoming.

But the ultimate folly would be to embrace the logic of a rollback project without committing to the necessary actions to achieve it. In that case, everybody would be better off with the nuclear deal, with all its flaws, still in place.

Since I cannot resist inadvertent political satire, I took the “deal of the day” and look forward to receiving my summit commemorative coin.

It’s very unlikely that either Tehran or Pyongyang will be as enthusiastic about what’s on offer for them.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

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