On the eve of the historic meeting between Kim and Trump which may resolve one of the biggest nuclear crises of our century – though optimism is not on the rise these days – many pundits are brought to think: why is Trump willing to get to yes with North Korea while stubbornly throwing away an already achieved, and functioning, nuclear deal with Iran? Last month Trump raised many eyebrows when he announced he was ready and willing to offer North Korea some form of economic incentive in exchange for the scaling down of its nuclear program: after all, isn't it the very substance of the JCPOA?
And yet, Trump's apparent incoherence is perfectly understandable if put into perspective.
First of all, Trump is willing to come to terms with North Korea, which is the poster boy of all the rogue states, but has not experienced the troubled past of US-Iranian relations: there is no North Korean assault on the US embassy to recall - not only because there is no US embassy in Pyongyang – and there are no US-sponsored attempts to throw down a democratically-elected North Korean government, as instead happened with Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, just to cite an example. The actual truth behind Trump throwing away the nuclear deal with Iran is not a matter of perfecting the agreement – even Trump knows that the Iranian political elite could not capitulate to his requests – but lies in a decades-old hostility which has become a true ideological issue in American foreign policy making. In other words, Trump is willing to make peace with North Korea since this could seriously give a boost to his prestige and prove that its bully approach to diplomacy somehow works, while not only is he not ready to make peace with Iran but also he is willing to tear down any diplomatic framework – such as the JCPOA – which ultimately gives Iran some kind of international legitimation and recognition.
This leads us to the second point: Trump's objective with North Korea is to get to an agreement which could somehow solve one of the most serious security crises of our times; with Iran – where this agreement is already in place – the actual objective is regime change. As stated above, Trump knows that the ultimatum Secretary Pompeo gave Tehran in his 21st May speech is deemed to remain a dead letter because for Iran to comply with those requests simply would mean to renounce its raison d’être, to imperil its own security, to betray the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic. Something you could really not ask a sovereign state to do, even more something you could not expect any sovereign state – and in Iran sovereignty, independence, and "resistance" count a lot – to comply with. Thus, Trump's endgame in his wrestling approach to Tehran is the revilement of the enemy; what he is really doing by scuttling the deal is trading a common good which is already here – global security – for what the US Administration perceives as a major benefit that could somehow happen in the future: the death of the Iranian regime by (economic) strangling. The reason why this approach simply cannot work falls outside the scope of this commentary, and maybe even outside the span of attention of the disruptor-in-Chief.
What the US President does not take into consideration is the fact that his behaviour vis-à-vis Iran and the nuclear deal makes a terrible precedent for a country which is entering into really sensitive negotiations. Actually, Trump's bully approach to diplomacy creates two major problems.
First of all, it sends North Korea a precise message: Washington can enter or exit agreements with the same ease as the US President sends or deletes a tweet. Paired with US national security adviser John Bolton's call for a "Lybia model" of denuclearization for North Korea (would Gaddafi have been ousted in 2011 had he not given up his nukes?), it could definitely end up reminding Pyongyang of the importance for a country of not dismantling its nuclear program. Tehran itself is learning it the hard way: it renounced the major source of nuclear pride just to be left empty-handed.
Second, it risks discarding the JCPOA as a model for future negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation. Repeatedly labelled by Trump as a deeply misguided and flawed agreement, the JCPOA is actually a truly successful, hardly-negotiated, functioning agreement. It contains a number of IAEA safeguards-related provisions that have considerably expanded the IAEA's authority in Iran. The enhanced verification standards it puts into practice can definitely be applied to other countries should a serious proliferation crisis arise in the future.
However, these observations prove to be valid only if we consider global and lasting security as the ultimate aim of negotiations between states. What Trump has proved until now, instead, is that he is more interested in unilateral shows of force, that he considers negotiations as purely transactional acts, and that he only values global security as long as it does not rest upon an Obama-era negotiated agreement. "Rocket man" should really fasten his seatbelt: what Trump's America seems to be offering the world these days are really bumpy rides.