President Donald Trump’s heated exchange of threats with Iran’s leaders this week is raising questions about whether the world has seen this show before — and whether it will end the same way.
Is it possible, as he did with North Korea, that Trump will ramp up sanctions and rhetorical pressure on Tehran, only to eventually back off, reach a deal of little substance with the country’s leaders and declare, implausibly, that he solved a decades-old problem?
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While it’s still too early to judge the outcome of Trump’s historic summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, analysts say there are signs that Trump’s approach to Iran could echo his approach to the North. After all, Trump has already sought to meet with Iranian officials, and his advisers won’t rule out future engagement. He’s eager to strike deals on the world stage. And Iran holds important leverage in places where Trump would like to withdraw U.S. troops, such as Syria.
“If I’m an Iranian opposition activist, I’m going to ask myself, ‘How committed is this American president to this strategy?’” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist with the Middle East Institute. “The wild card with Trump is that he might get a better deal from the Iranian regime, and that means that the opposition who followed Trump into this process becomes collateral damage.”
For now, Trump seems happy to keep needling the Iranian leadership.
On Sunday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani warned Trump not to interfere in his country, because “war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Hours later, Trump fired back at Rouhani on Twitter, in all caps: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
The exchange was so reminiscent of Trump’s warning last August that he would respond to North Korean threats with “fire and fury” that reporters asked the White House on Monday whether the president was willing to eventually sit down with the Iranians, the way he did with Kim. (Press secretary Sarah Sanders deflected the question.) Asked whether he had any concerns about his tweet provoking tensions with Iran, Trump himself said, “None at all.”
The president exhibited similar bravado toward North Korea last year.
He called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and castigated the government in Pyongyang for its human rights record. Kim shot back that Trump was a “dotard,” and his government threatened a nuclear showdown. The Trump team worked in concert with other countries to increase economic sanctions on the North, a campaign it called “maximum pressure.” The president also used his speech before the United Nations General Assembly last September to trash both Iran and North Korea.
But for most of this year, Trump has taken a radically different approach to North Korea than he has with Iran.
After an invitation from the North, Trump and Kim held a summit in Singapore to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Trump also dramatically dialed down his complaints about North Korea’s human rights record, and after the June summit, praised Kim repeatedly and put key U.S.-South Korean military exercises on hold. The sanctions, technically, remain in place.
The summit resulted in a vague Trump-Kim statement that committed North Korea to “complete denuclearization” but gave no time frame and no specifics. It was far from the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” Trump’s team had long demanded prior to the summit. Still, to the surprise of much of the world, Trump soon claimed on Twitter: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” In recent weeks, Trump aides have struggled to pin down the North Koreans on the next steps, amid reports that they are upgrading some nuclear facilities.
Iran, meanwhile, is stuck on Trump’s naughty list.
In May, the president pulled the U.S. out of the internationally negotiated Iran nuclear deal, re-imposing the sanctions that had been waived in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. The administration also laid out 12 demands on Iran so broad that some analysts say they amount to a call for regime change.
Trump is demanding that all other countries reduce their oil imports from Iran to zero by Nov. 4, a big threat to Iran’s shaky economy. The U.S. is also pursuing information warfare against Iran, using social media and other means to highlight the Islamist leadership’s human rights abuses and economic mistakes.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in California attended by many Iranian-Americans. In it, he accused the Tehran government of corruption and cruelty, and assured Iranians that the U.S. stands with them in their efforts to resist the clerics’ rule.
But when asked whether the Trump administration could possibly reconcile with the Iranian leadership, Pompeo, a longtime hard-liner on Iran, didn’t rule it out. In fact, he drew a parallel with North Korea, noting that he’d visited Pyongyang three times as part of engagement efforts.
“The president has said if we can get this change, if we can get the [Iranian] leadership to make a strategic decision about how to ensure its well-being and the well-being of its peoples, that we’re prepared to have a conversation and to discuss how that might proceed,” Pompeo said. “The president has stated at least once, perhaps more than once, that he is prepared to do that with the leadership in Iran, but not until such time as there are demonstrable, tangible, irreversible changes in the Iranian regime that I don’t see happening today. But I live in hope.”
During last September’s U.N. General Assembly, the Trump team reached out to Iran’s delegation, via the French, seeking a meeting, possibly between Trump and Rouhani. The Iranians chose not to engage, in part because of the hostility Trump expressed toward Iran in his assembly speech.
Contacts grew more limited afterward and are now down to basically nothing, said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group. According to Vaez, Iran has even pulled the plug on so-called Track 2 talks, which are usually conversations between unofficial representatives of both countries, such as analysts and former officials, that explore diplomacy.
The Iranians realize they’ve left a vacuum that their opponents, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia, have gleefully filled. But they also fear that if they call for a meeting, a la Kim, it could signal to Trump that his strategy on Iran — which Pompeo also describes as “maximum pressure” — is working and should be kept up.
“I think the Iranian leadership has come to the conclusion that the best option is to wait out the Trump administration,” Vaez said, adding that the strategy could change if Trump is re-elected.
But Suzanne DiMaggio, an analyst with the New America think tank who’s an expert on both Iran and North Korea, said it’s possible the Iranians haven’t ruled over pursuing talks at levels lower than Trump.
“The Iranians have not been impressed with the Trump team’s negotiating skills in talks with Pyongyang and likely see an opportunity to outmaneuver Trump,” she said.
Iran observers recognize that Trump is a mercurial figure who often changes his mind, and his tone, with little warning or input from aides. But some said that the dynamics involving Iran were different from those involving North Korea, making it less likely that Trump would pursue diplomacy anytime soon with Tehran.
Unlike Iran, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, giving it more leverage. It’s also economically much more isolated than Iran and has withstood years of international sanctions without a collapse of its government. A U.S. military strike on North Korea runs the risk of a reaction that could lead to a catastrophic number of deaths.
All those factors made diplomacy with the North seem appealing to several people in Trump’s orbit and, apparently, the president himself. There are few, if any, voices around Trump now that are advocating sitting down with the Iranians.
That’s partly because, despite its lack of nuclear weapons, Iran is seen as causing trouble on so many fronts that trying to reach any accommodation with the country would infuriate key U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Through proxy militias, sponsorship of terrorist groups and other means, Iran is projecting a level of influence throughout the Middle East that those U.S. allies find unacceptable. That includes having a major military presence in Syria and arming rebels in Yemen. The U.S. has military involvement in both those countries in large part because of its concerns about Iran.
Iran is also more vulnerable to sanctions than North Korea because of its greater economic reliance on the international community. As a result, there’s a strong interest in the Trump administration in seeing whether economic pressure could ultimately lead the Iranian people to force out the Islamist leadership, which took over in the wake of a revolution some 40 years ago.
A person who has advised the Trump administration on Iran pointed out that while America’s frustrations with North Korea were almost singularly about its nuclear weapons program, its enmity with Iran covers a spectrum of issues, including its potential nuclear activities, making it harder to strike some grand bargain with Tehran.
The person noted one other factor that could hold Trump back from engaging with Iran: strong desire within his Republican political base — many of whom are fervent supporters of Israel — to stay tough on Tehran.
“When it comes to the Islamic Republic, unlike other issues, Trump’s base would not countenance a stupid deal,” the person said.
Still, others were less certain, if only because of Trump’s unpredictability.
Vatanka, for one, pointed out that Trump had repeatedly signaled that he wants U.S. troops to get out of Syria. If Iran were to offer Trump some sort of a deal involving its own drawback from a part of Syria, Trump may leap at it, details and allies be damned.
Iranian opposition activists, meanwhile, will probably press ahead.
“They might do it at their own pace, with their own tools,” Vatanka said, “but they’ll probably have second thoughts about relying on the Trump administration.”