It would be a mistake to think what is happening on the Korean peninsula has no bearing on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. it does.
Why the North Korea crisis has serious implications for the Middle East
Pyongyang is a long way from Tehran. The crisis created by the rapid advancements in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and ratcheted up by the American president’s bellicose response to them seems remote from the issues of the Middle East. But it would be a mistake to think what is happening in and around the Korean peninsula has no bearing on the future of efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme.
Donald Trump, the US president, has already indicated that it is his belief that Iran is not complying with the spirit of the nuclear accord that became one of the signature accomplishments of the presidency of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr Trump has also said he would have liked to decertify Iran for non-compliance with the terms of the programme earlier this year and that he intends to do so soon. So, we know we have a crisis brewing that will not only pit the US against Iran but seems likely to trigger tensions between the US and other P5 members that were party to the Iran agreement. They don’t share Mr Trump’s view and they seem unlikely to go along with his confrontational approach.
The pressure of going against the wishes of his partners in the deal might be seen as a potential deterrent to Mr Trump - if not because he is responsive to outside pressure then because US sanctions are unlikely to have much effect if the rest of the world is not going along with them. Further, his being an outlier internationally might trigger political pressure on Mr Trump at home to moderate his views.
But, North Korea has had the effect of reawakening America to the palpable threat of nuclear war. At no time since the Cuban Missile Crisis has US media focused so much on the possibility of a nuclear strike against America by a rogue state. In the US territory of Guam, homeland security officials have issued instructions about what to do in the event of an attack, including tips like not looking directly at the nuclear fireball. These warnings have been broadcast by CNN to the US mainland. The result is not just a heightened level of anxiety but a much greater public awareness of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
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For better or for worse, this will work to Mr Trump’s advantage when he seeks to undo the Iran deal and apply more pressure on Tehran. He may be doing it out of a reflexive desire to erase Mr Obama’s legacies. But, ironically, in part because of Mr Trump’s intemperate reaction to the actions of Kim Jong-un, the US people are in the midst of a crash course in what happens if a hostile regime gains the ultimate destructive power of atomic weapons. They are now thinking as they have not in the past about the special challenges posed by states that may not be rational actors and may not be susceptible to the power of deterrence. There is renewed discussion of the dangers of nuclear states that might allow weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists.
While these concerns pertain to North Korea, they also certainly apply to Iran. And for this reason, it is likely Mr Trump will have more support for undoing the nuclear deal or at least adding new pressure on Iran. His opponents will argue, with some merit, that the North Korea experience actually underscores the benefits of having a deal such as that struck with Iran. But in the end, the president has considerable latitude to act here and in the wake of recent events, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are unlikely to want to show weakness by going against his views.
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Matters are made more complex by the gathering storm of scandal swirling around the White House. Mr Trump has seen that his controversial sabre-rattling regarding North Korea has what he sees as the welcome effect of distracting attention from the investigations into his team’s Russia ties and their involvement in Russian efforts to tip the scales in the last US election. This past weekend he even took it a step further with a comment that America was weighing military options in Venezuela (a country in chaos but one in which there is absolutely no sensible reason for US military intervention).
Mr Trump appears to think confrontation and tough talk make him appear strong. They also appeal to some in his base who felt Barack Obama was weak. And such a stance shifts headlines in a direction with which he is more comfortable. Combine that with the number of Iran hawks surrounding him and their collective discomfort with the sense that US policy in Syria and Iraq have strengthened Iran, and the likelihood that this autumn will see a major ratcheting up of US-Iran tensions has grown greatly in the past few days.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow