What if North Korea and Iran move in tandem

An undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on July 26, 2019 showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching a missile launch.

The sensational  New Yorker story on August 2 by Robin Wright on the unpublicised meeting between Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the American senator Rand Paul (who is a member of the senate’s Foreign Relations Committee) in New York a few days ago details for the first time what transpired  between the two leaders. Robin Wright is highly reliable, having good contacts with Iranian officials, and this account can be trusted as authentic. 

What emerges is that Zarif and Paul had a substantive conversation, exchanging opinions on a confidential basis the broad contours of a negotiated end to the US-Iran standoff. Some of these details are already known — especially, Iran’s willingness to provide legal guarantee that it will not have a nuclear weapon programme, which comes as no surprise. 

Paul is known to be close to President Trump and they both subscribe to the school of thought that the US should not get into any new Middle Eastern war. Paul is also supportive of Trump’s campaign against America’s ‘endless wars’. Evidently, his meeting with Zarif (at the Iranian ambassador’s residence in New York) took place with the prior knowledge and consent of Trump. Reports had appeared previously that Trump gave the go-ahead to Paul to negotiate with Iran.  

Therefore, the surprising part in the New Yorker report is the invitation to Zarif, transmitted by Paul, to make a visit to the White House to meet Trump. Of course, Zarif parried, not rejecting the invite offhand but explaining that he needed instructions from Tehran. 

The events since then — US imposing sanctions on Zarif — assume an added dimension now. Can it be that Trump felt insulted — and hit out? Or, more plausibly, he pulled back under pressure from within his camp, fearing media leaks and ensuing embarrassment? Either way,  the US policy on Iran looks bizarre, lacking coherence, swinging wildly from one end to the other, completely unpredictable. 

Tehran will think twice before engaging with Trump. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s overture to Zarif and the ensuing snub comes at an awkward time for POTUS, who is lately facing taunts from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. North Korea’s multiple ballistic missile tests (with range up to 450 kms and altitude of 50 kms) are highly damaging for Trump’s reputation who has been claiming that his personal diplomacy with Kim has persuaded the latter to end all missile (and nuclear) tests. (By the way, in the South Korean assessment, the newly-developed North Korean ballistic missiles are a “version” of Russia’s famous Iskander-M missile, which is a formidable road-mobile, surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads and reputed to be highly manoeuvrable at the final stretch of their trajectory, thus allowing them to bypass the enemy’s air defences.) 

Without doubt, Kim has signalled to Trump that Pyongyang’s patience has limits and Washington had better get back to the negotiating table and also get used to the reality that Pyongyang is not going to agree to full disarmament. 

Trump, of course, has no choice but to downplay the latest series of North Korean missile launches, although he knows his claim of success with Kim  as a singular foreign policy trophy of his presidency is in tatters. In a 3-part tweet, Trump said, 

“There may be a United Nations violation, but Chairman Kim does not want to disappoint me with a violation of trust. There is far too much for North Korea to gain – the potential as a Country, under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, is unlimited.”

Trump then went on to praise Kim, saying he has a “great and beautiful vision for his country” and that, importantly, that vision can be realised only if Trump remains president. Trump concluded, “He (Kim) will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!” 

Clearly, Trump’s reaction reflects that his approach to North Korea still emphasises personal diplomacy. Trump thinks Kim will fall for his flattery and for his offer to help out the North Korean economy. 

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea and Iran respectively has nothing in common. Trump is far more cautious about Pyongyang and shows much greater latitude. Of course, the critical difference is that North Korea is a nuclear weapon state which is capable of staging an attack on the US west coast and endangering the US bases in the Pacific and the Far East where over hundred thousand American military personnel are deployed. Besides, what makes the North Korea problem explosive is that the country is in reality having a stockpile of nuclear weapons whereas, in comparison, the US-Iran standoff is not really about nuclear non-proliferation but about the rise of Iran as a regional power. 

To be sure, the US diplomacy will have a hard time coping with the North Korean front becoming kinetic at a juncture when the US’s standoff with Iran is also entering a dangerous phase. North Korea’s missile launch today was reportedly supervised by Kim in person. It implies that Trumps flattery had no effect on Kim, who has his own game plan worked out.  

What happens if North Korea piles up pressure in the coming months even as Trump’s campaign for re-election shifts gear? The crunch time comes later this month. Pyongyang maintains that if the US goes ahead with its planned military exercise with South Korea in August, Washington will be violating an agreement between Kim and Trump. Indeed, if the exercises go ahead, all bets are off. Pyongyang may retaliate by ending its suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests. 

Both North Korea and Iran are astute observers of the vicissitudes of regional and world politics. Therefore, while it seems improbable that North Korea and Iran would move in tandem in tackling Trump, such a likelihood cannot be brushed off, either. To be sure, the US-Iran standoff has created more space for Pyongyang to manoeuvre — just as the US-China tensions already have. And Kim must be aware of that. 

On the other hand, so long as all was quiet on the North Korean front, Trump administration had a relatively free hand to focus on the Iran front. But if both fronts come alive simultaneously, it becomes a new ball game. By pure coincidence, in August, one such situation may arise with Iran planning to make its third move to distance itself from the JCPOA and North Korea challenging the holding of the annual US-ROK military exercises.