A key component of President Trump’s fiery United Nations speech this week was a denunciation of North Korea and Iran, two “rogue regimes” that he said represent the “scourge of our planet today.” In the days since, both countries have issued defiant retorts, lashing out at Trump.
First came the official response from Pyongyang. In a rare direct statement, Kim Jong-un attacked Trump as a “frightened dog” and “dotard” before threatening the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.” Today, Kim’s foreign minister clarified what that countermeasure might be. Per the Wall Street Journal:
North Korea’s foreign minister said the country could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean in response to President Donald Trump’s speech before the United Nations that warned the U.S. would annihilate North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies. […]
“In my opinion, perhaps we might consider a historic aboveground test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean,” Mr. Ri said in a video broadcast on a South Korean news channel.
Meanwhile, as President Trump weighs whether to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal he denounced as an “embarrassment” at the UN, President Rouhani is publicly touting the country’s ballistic missile program, per the NYT:
Escalating a war of words with the United States, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran declared on Friday that his country would continue to develop new missiles and “would not seek anyone’s permission to defend our land.”
As he spoke at a military parade in Tehran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps unveiled a ballistic missile with a range of about 1,250 miles, making it capable of reaching much of the Middle East, including Israel.
Mr. Rouhani’s nationally televised speech at the parade — which commemorates the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 — and the show of force were a direct display of defiance toward President Trump, who signed a bill in August imposing mandatory penalties on those involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them.
The similarities between the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats should not be exaggerated. Pyongyang has made no secret of its rush toward a nuclear ICBM, while Iran has denied seeking nukes at all as it adheres (for now) to the constraints imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And the threat of an imminent H-bomb test in the Pacific is more pressing than Iran’s ballistic missile development, even if the long-term threat of a nuclear Iran is more serious.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering the two countries together, since Trump is needling both simultaneously in ways that could make one crisis rebound on the other.
As the New York Times‘ David Sanger recently noted, there is a dangerous contradiction in Trump’s pressure campaigns against Pyongyang and Tehran. Even while Trump tries to keep all options open on North Korea, including eventual negotiations, he is itching to torpedo the nuclear deal with Iran, which could forfeit whatever credibility he has on the matter.
If Trump intentionally blows up the Iran deal—as he by all accounts would like to do—Kim will be loath to enter into any negotiations with us, not trusting that any commitments would be honored by the United States. Both Iran and North Korea would feel even further validated in their drive for a nuclear deterrent. And the Trump Administration would struggle to rebuild an anti-Iran sanctions regime with its European allies, who are eager to do business with Tehran and are urging Trump not to kill the deal. Adam Garfinkle argued all of this and more back in January: a unilateral abrogation of the JCPOA would make the odds of war with Iran go way up—and it could also convince North Korea that they have nothing to gain from sitting down for talks.
That doesn’t mean that the Iran deal should be treated as sacrosanct. It was sold on duplicitous assumptions, and there are plenty of ways that it failed to address (and arguably emboldened) Iran’s destabilizing behavior in its neighborhood. But these are issues that Trump could address outside the scope of the JCPOA without scuttling it outright. French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested a way forward, offering new negotiations to discuss sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile testing and fixing the deal’s so-called “sunset provisions”.
Many foreign policy failures are born from failing to anticipate how actions in one theater can reverberate in another. If Trump does get his way in ending the Iran deal, though, the decision will certainly resonate in North Korea just as surely as it resonated when NATO overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. According to U.S. intelligence, that event hardened assessments in Pyongyang that the regime would never be safe if it disarmed through negotiations, since Qaddafi had given up his own weapons years earlier and was nonetheless deposed.
Iran and North Korea are both long-term security challenges that will vex American policymakers for many years to come. But Trump’s plan to kill the Iranian nuclear deal may well make matters even worse, triggering an unnecessary two-front crisis all at once.