Trump should remember Iran is watching his rhetoric on North Korea

Trump should remember Iran is watching his rhetoric on North Korea
© Getty Images

After vowing at the United Nations to “completely destroy” North Korea if necessary and following that verbal brinksmanship with the harshest economic sanctions ever imposed by the United States government, President Trump has set the U.S. on a seemingly inevitable collision course with the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea’s widening nuclear weapons ambitions, now including the threat to detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean and shoot down U.S. aircraft, along with its own verbal flourishes such as calling Trump a “madman,” underscore the growing crisis.

He would be wise to remember that Iran is watching, and that he should be cautious in choosing his rhetoric.


The president also used his speech at the U.N. to condemn the Iranian nuclear deal, indicating he would make a decision on whether to recertify Iran’s compliance by Oct. 15. Iran would remain a non-nuclear weapons state according to its terms, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has claimed the country is in fact abiding by its commitments.


The nuclear accord, notwithstanding the IAEA’s view, is riddled with flaws. Those include its limited duration, the preservation of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and failure to address Iran’s long-range missile program.

Additionally, there are indications that Iran is taking advantage of the agreement’s shortcomings. Nations that eschew nuclear weapons have no requirement for long-range missiles, but reports indicate Iran may have just tested a new one.

But it is a mistake to believe that Trump has any greater freedom to act on Iran than he does with North Korea. Iran’s domestic politics offer no reason to believe Tehran would be willing to renegotiate any of Trump’s major concerns.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is viewed in some Western quarters as a moderate but is buffeted by skeptical, hardline forces, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Moderate” Rouhani’s speech at the U.N. labeled as “baseless” Trump’s charge that the agreement is an “embarrassment,” asserting that Iran could restart its uranium enrichment program in a matter of hours. 

For an administration with limited foreign policy expertise and many unfulfilled senior positions the State Department and Department of Defense, the president is embarking on a daunting test of his crisis management skills, dealing with not one but two nuclear crises if the Iranians abandon the nuclear deal in response to possible decertification. Rouhani’s threat may be a bluff, but it can’t be ignored.

Adding to the policy challenges, part of what makes these issues riveting and laced with uncertainty is that while Trump and Kim intensify their animus, how the U.S. deals with North Korea will be watched closely in Tehran.

The result could create an inadvertent dilemma for the United States. His rhetoric on North Korea could strengthen hardliners opposed to Rouhani and the deal. What if Iran concludes that it should resume its nuclear program sooner rather than later?

Often driven by instinct rather than deep deliberation, Trump is mostly right when he critiques North Korea and Iran. But he may also be opening a Pandora’s box of potential outcomes over which U.S. influence may be much less than desired. The president is correct that both issues should have been dealt with more effectively long ago, and in the idea that the U.S. is reaping the bitter fruit of poorly negotiated deals.

Nonetheless, a the administration does not have a finely honed strategy for dealing with North Korea, and Trump evinces no conceptual understanding of how events in North Korea could shape Iran’s response.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was widely seen as an event that goaded Moammar Gadhafi into giving up Libya’s nuclear weapons program. The U.S., in turn, responded by supporting Gadhafi's ouster. Trump would be smart to think about the message he might send if he makes a similar misstep.

Jack Caravelli served as director for nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff from 1996-2000.