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2018 Winter Olympics an occasion to rein in rogue regimes


Warm gestures and demonstrations of Korean unity at the Winter Olympic Games during the first week of February notwithstanding, President Trump’s claim that Russia is helping North Korea evade sanctions and stepping up its efforts to deliver a long-range ballistic missile to the United States are a reminder of Pyongyang’s threat status.

Vice President Pence’s presence at the Opening Ceremonies increases the possibility he may meet, if only in passing, with North Koreans attending the Olympics, including Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister — a surprise guest at the Opening Ceremonies. “We’ll see what happens,” Pence said before arriving in Seoul. TV cameras have captured the two sitting just a few feet apart.

Given Pyongyang’s goal of dividing Seoul and Washington and taking control of the entire Korean Peninsula, Pence should be careful to refrain from accommodating Pyongyang in its endless quest to end American influence on the Korean Peninsula. Taking a strong stance and keeping sanctions against Pyongyang in place is a step in the right direction.

{mosads}Athletes have marched in the Olympic Opening Ceremony together on three prior occasions. But they have never paraded against the backdrop of a geopolitical crisis: In 2017 Pyongyang detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapon and launched two new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. homeland.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared aboard a U.S. Aircraft Carrier on Jan. 17 that international sanctions are “really starting to hurt” Pyongyang. His statement is accurate, but the Dear Leader is hoping to utilize the Games to distract attention from the global perception he poses an ongoing threat to international peace and security.

In last month’s State of the Union address, Trump asserted that no state has oppressed its own citizens more completely or brutally than Pyongyang’s, declaring: “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening…” Trump went on to contend that no state has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than Pyongyang’s.

When Trump pointed to Ji Seong-ho in the audience, he said, “Seong-ho had traveled miles on crutches across Asia to freedom. Now he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most – the truth.”  Of Seong-ho, he said, “I understand you still keep … (your) crutches as a reminder of how far you have come.”

But Pyongyang isn’t the only repressive regime the Trump administration must deal with, there is also Iran. The circumstances facing the repressive regimes in North Korea and Iran are quite different, however: Pyongyang is isolated and under pressure by external power; Tehran is facing its most significant internal uprising since 2009.

Tehran’s aggression toward protesters demonstrating for freedom has left the regime defensive in the context of Washington’s increasingly offensive posture. Moreover, the bipartisan American coalition backing Iran protesters has rattled the regime’s clerical rulers and increased the prospect of a revolution by the Iranian people.

Trump first put Tehran on notice for engaging in regional destabilization shortly after taking office in February 2017 and then pursued comprehensive sanctions targeting Iranian ballistic missile programs in July 2017. The administration’s October 2017 decision formally to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization — effectively blacklisting it and more than forty related entities from the global economy — was necessary to contain the regime’s belligerence. So too were sanctions by Treasury on the Iran in November 2017 for involvement in terrorist activity and large-scale counterfeiting. But more must be done to accelerate the unrest and support the aspirations of the Iranian people.

Tehran has long embraced a siege mentality to distract from global calls for good governance. But the tactic underscores a little-known truth that distinguishes it from other rogue regimes, including North Korea: Tehran fears internal dissent more than they do external threats — even the threat of preemptive force.

Political scientists understand that deterrence, containment, preemption, and regime change from within require different circumstances and a soft revolution requires an active and credible partner that can lead the charge.

Sanctions and coercive diplomacy are critical to diminishing the threat posed by Pyongyang since no indigenous opposition exists that can strike a fatal blow to the Dear Leader. But this is not so in Tehran where regime change by the people is an option.

U.S. policymakers interested in leveraging the discontent on the Iranian Street should support the ongoing anti-regime uprising. How? By striking a chord of solidarity with the regime’s principal opposition to clerical rule, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). A 2013 Iran Policy Committee study found Tehran pays more attention to this dissident movement than all other opposition groups combined.

Credible regime change in an Iranian context involves empowerment, recognition, and solidarity with the regime’s principal democratic opposition, not preemption or occupation.

Coercive diplomacy and sanctions have been effective in reducing threats posed by Pyongyang and Iran; but regime change from within constitutes a third path between military confrontation and appeasement only in Iran.

As the regime’s ayatollahs seek to expand their violent arc of influence, CNN reports that:

“Iran currently possesses more ballistic missiles than any other country in the Middle East but remains dependent on foreign suppliers for missile development and production.”

With the Winter Games in full swing, Washington should seize the media focus on the rogue regime in Pyongyang to discuss how best to counter its proliferation partner in Tehran, per the research of the authors.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Human Security and Negotiations and Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.

Prof. Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, personal representative of the secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @AmericanCHR.

Tags Donald Trump Rex Tillerson

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