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Timing of Iran Decision Hints at Trump Strategy on North Korea

The significance of the president’s address on the Iran nuclear deal lies not so much in what he said, but when he said it. 

On its surface, President Trump’s short speech provides little in the way of a containment strategy or any roadmap for U.S policy beyond the reimposition of nuclear sanctions, previously waived under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known. The only indication of a way forward is the president’s assertion that “we will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.” 

But even if Trump laid out no explicit strategy, the outlines of the administration’s new approach to Iran can nevertheless be divined from a few clues in his speech. The key is to focus not on what the president said, but when he said it. 

In January, President Trump had set a deadline of May 12 for his decision of whether to “fix or nix” the Iran deal. That was when he would once again be faced the choice of extending waivers on sanctions that needed to stay lifted in order for the United States to remain compliant with the JCPOA. And yet, he made his announcement on May 8, four days early. Why? 

A compelling reason can be found directly in the president’s remarks. “In fact, at this very moment,” the president slipped in toward the end of his speech, “Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un.”  

That timing is no coincidence. It appears likely that the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA was timed to fall right before this important, high-level visit to North Korea. And that suggests a close connection between the Trump administration’s Iran and North Korea policies and objectives. 

Those connections appear to be two-fold: 

First, the president’s decision to withdraw from JCPOA is as much about Iran as it is about sending a message to Kim Jong-un. Amid concerns that the North Korean leader will get a “win” just from meeting with Trump, that he is not serious about diplomacy, and will just use talks to divide the United States and its allies while delaying further punitive measures, President Trump declared, as much to Pyongyang as to Tehran, that “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail.”  

Trump had told the media earlier he would not be afraid to walk away from unproductive talks with Kim. The JCPOA decision is meant to be proof of the president’s steely negotiating nerves. 

Second, the president’s approach to North Korea is, in turn, also informing his decisions on Iran. According to the president, it was his taunts, threats, and sanctions that forced North Korea’s Kim to the negotiating table. “For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong-un will do what is right for his people and for humanity,” Trump tweeted in March. And by adding that “In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost,” he made clear that, to his mind, it is exactly that “maximum pressure” that is yielding diplomatic fruit. 

It is similar “maximum pressure” that Trump now appears ready to bring to bear on Iran. Combining the sanctions and bluster that defined his approach to North Korea, Trump declared in his Iran speech that, “powerful sanctions will go into full effect. If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” 

If the president’s Iran policy is a means to an end with North Korea and his North Korea policy is the model for his approach to Iran, then it would seem that both policies are aimed at achieving similar objectives. The president’s goal in North Korea is clear—getting Kim to agree to denuclearize—and if this reading of his Iran speech is right, returning to the negotiating table is Trump’s objective with Tehran as well.  

Trump signaled as much in declaring that when Iran wants to “make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able.”  

In this light, the president’s statement that he will now be undertaking “efforts to eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program; to stop its terrorist activities worldwide; and to block its menacing activity across the Middle East,” reads not so much as a new policy but more as a laundry list of negotiating positions. In fact, it seems to mirror quite closely the four-pillared “grand bargain” that French President Emmanuel Macron had proposed last month.  

For those who had been waiting for the president to deliver on his promise of a strategy to “counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region,” this is bad news. It does not appear that Trump is planning to take major steps to confront Iran in Syria or Iraq, seemingly preferring to attempt to resolves these issues in future negotiations. As I warned in Roll Call recently, this approach risks falling into the same trap as President Obama found: subordinating all of U.S. Iran policy to the goal of getting a deal, no matter the cost. 

Perhaps it should be no surprise, however, the Art of the Deal president is all about making a(nother) deal. 

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