Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The North Korean Playbook Won't Work With Iran

| May 08, 2018

Hard-liners in Tehran and Washington are both drawing the wrong lessons from diplomacy with Pyongyang — and that could lead to war.

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce whether he will maintain or kill the Iran nuclear deal, most observers have already concluded that he will withdraw from the agreement. Regardless of Trump's decision, a disturbing trend is emerging: Increasingly, the Trump administration is pursuing a strategy of escalating tensions in the hope of using brinkmanship to strike a better deal with Iran. Those who support this approach argue that it may be preferable to deal with a crisis today rather than in the future, when some of the deal's key nuclear restrictions have expired and Iran might have a more advanced nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, increasingly loud voices in Iran also favor escalation and seek to use brinkmanship to secure a more favorable deal for themselves. In their view, it is preferable to play hardball with the United States, maintain and secure strong footholds in the region — as Iran has done in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — and accelerate advancement of a nuclear program as leverage before a state of sanctions-induced financial limbo creates more serious damage to the Iranian economy.

The rationale one hears from hard-liners in Washington and Tehran is strikingly similar; both are driven by what they perceive as a current position of strength that could soon evaporate. These perceptions are directly related to each side’s interpretation of the North Korean situation. Trump and his hard-line aides share the view that maximal pressure and escalation softened North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whereas Iranian hard-liners insist that Kim’s advanced nuclear weapons program gave him the leverage he needed to drag a sitting U.S. president to the table.

Trump’s explicit threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea continued for months, and then his rhetoric suddenly shifted to a need for “dialogue.” There are now plans for talks between Trump and Kim, as well as reports of North Korean concessions in advance of the meeting. Trump and new members of his foreign-policy team — including National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — seem to believe that they will be able to achieve similar results with Iran. Intimidation, threats, and tough talk in the case of North Korea have created the illusion that a similar strategy will pay off with Iran, too.

But it is highly unlikely that the strategy of intimidating Iran will play out as the Trump administration hopes. Iran will not offer the same type of grand bargain today that it proposed to the United States during the Iraq War in 2003, when Tehran offered a comprehensive list of concessions on nuclear issues as well as its support for Hezbollah. Iran is now in a much stronger position, due to its regional footholds in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq; its improved international standing thanks to the multilateral nuclear negotiations that led to the 2015 deal; and its strengthened relationship with Russia and China. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, expressed that view clearly in a recent video posted on Twitter: “Bluster or threats won’t get the U.S. a new deal, particularly as it is not honoring the deal it has already made.”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“The North Korean Playbook Won't Work With Iran.” Foreign Policy, May 8, 2018.