Trump Uses Maximum Pressure on North Korea and Iran
For one thing, North Korean leaders had a longstanding goal of meeting one-on-one with an American president and getting the boost in international stature such a meeting entailed. For Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who heads a regime that holds “death to America” as a mantra, meeting with an American president doesn’t help his legitimacy—it hurts.
For another, the Iranians have the North Korean precedent to observe, and it won’t be lost on them that Kim’s willingness to engage hasn’t gotten him any sanctions relief so far. Finally, Iran may be deterred by American threats from harassing the U.S. assets in its region—or it may start to see escalation as its only source of leverage.
On the U.S. side, there’s another key difference in how each campaign is playing out. Earlier in the North Korea pressure campaign, Trump was the one hurling hostile rhetoric, playing bad cop to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s good cop, who was trying to keep communication channels open. (Sample tweet pair: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man… …Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”) The dynamic has now flipped, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton driving a hard line on Iran. “I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing isn’t it?” Trump told reporters this week. “I mean, I have John Bolton and I have other people that are a little more dovish than him. And, ultimately, I make the decision.”
Trump, though, doesn’t get to decide how others react to his overtures. “Hostility to the United States isn’t as central to the identity of the North Korean regime as it is the Iranian regime,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “In fact one of the goals of Kim Jong Un is to have a normal relationship with the U.S. … whereas Iran’s supreme leader views normalization with the United States as a greater existential threat than continued hostility.” Khamenei was skeptical of negotiations with the U.S. when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif conducted them during the Obama administration; he will be even more so now that America pulled out of the deal that resulted.
Some factions within Iran have advocated for engagement with the United States, and they won the argument during the Obama administration. But the fate of that deal has diminished their influence, Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me. “The one [faction] that insists that it’s not the right time to start negotiations with the U.S. is the IRGC,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s main security organ which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in April.