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What Reagan and Chamberlain can teach Trump about Iran and North Korea

What Reagan and Chamberlain can teach Trump about Iran and North Korea
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President Trump’s foreign policy is suffering from a case of acute schizophrenia. On one hand, Trump showers praise on North Korea’s authoritarian leader. On the other, he launches an aggressive campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran. But if history is any guide – and it frequently is – Trump should flip his Iran and North Korea scripts. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s experiences illuminate the folly of Trump’s approach to these two rogue states.

Let’s start with North Korea. Trump has flattered, congratulated and applauded North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnThe foreign policy canyon between Americans over China Blessing for Trump: a campaign devoid of foreign policy Bolton: North Korea 'more dangerous now' MORE. In Trump’s telling, the two “fell in love.” But Kim has escalated brutal policies – from mass starvation to physical and psychological torture – that have killed millions of his people. Moreover, he has murdered members of his own family and inner circle in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Kim, in short, is a bona fide, ideologically inflexible dictator.

Besides brutally repressing his own people to stay in power, Kim Jong Un’s number one strategic objective is to gain legitimacy on the international stage. To that end, Kim cunningly exploited Trump’s weakness for flamboyant displays of pageantry and photo ops to get what he desired most: A handshake with an American president. In short, Kim Jong Un played Trump like a fiddle.

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British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain learned a similar lesson nearly a century ago. His deference to another infamously bloodthirsty dictator, Adolf Hitler, gave Hitler the green light to annex large portions of Central Europe, ushering in World War II. Chamberlain’s experience with Hitler should serve as a warning to Trump: Playing into the hands of ruthless, ideologically rigid tyrants – whether Hitler or Kim – will not end well.

Iran is an entirely different case. In stark contrast to his oddly effusive embrace of Kim, Trump has slapped crippling sanction on Tehran, devastating the Iranian economy. With the most corrupt, anti-American elements in Iran firmly shielded from the worst effects of U.S. sanctions, everyday Iranian citizens are suffering the brunt of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Were Ronald Reagan around today, he would advise Trump against such a bellicose approach. Indeed, in 1986 Reagan dispatched a team to negotiate with a faction of – in the Gipper’s words – “moderate, politically influential Iranians” with the hope of establishing “a friendly relationship” with Tehran. In a unique twist of history, the current president of Iran – Hassan Rouhaniled the group of moderates that met with Reagan’s envoys nearly 40 years ago.

Reagan was right. Unlike North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Rouhani is a true moderate: He has publicly supported Iranians protesting corruption and repression; he has sidelined conservatives itching for war with the United States; his government has launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has sapped the power and influence of the most hardline, anti-American elements in Iran.

Moreover, the Rouhani government engaged the international community at the negotiating table, ultimately signing a landmark agreement – supported by key players in the U.S. and Israeli national security establishments – that placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, Rouhani has enacted economic and social reforms to improve Iranian society.

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The Rouhani government’s nascent reforms are reminiscent of the liberalizing changes that ushered in the collapse of a different authoritarian state. Indeed, thanks to President Reagan’s personal engagement, Mikhail Gorbachev had the political latitude to enact the reforms that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. (and, no, Reagan did not simply “outspend” the Soviets.)

But unlike Reagan, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Iran has elevated Iran’s most conservative, anti-American voices while undermining Rouhani and his reforms. With the failure of his misguided “maximum pressure” campaign, Trump would be wise to emulate Reagan’s diplomatic engagement with moderate leaders like Rouhani and Gorbachev. Indeed, a truly Reaganesque approach to Iran would see Trump (1) remove his crushing sanctions, (2) rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement and (3) circumvent Iran’s aging, unpopular supreme leader to directly praise Rouhani’s reformist agenda.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.