Trump's Iran and North Korea strategies are both falling apart, and it couldn't come at a worse time for him

  • President Donald Trump once claimed his deal-making prowess and toughness would enable him to face down and reduce the threat from America’s enemies abroad. 
  • So far Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategies in Iran and North Korea has achieved little, and in the case of Iran seems to have spurred increased aggression. 
  • On Tuesday, Iraqi protesters and members of pro-Iranian militias attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, torching a reception area, in an incident with echoes of the 1979 Iranian embassy siege.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has frozen weapons tests, but is forging ahead with developing new nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could target the US. 
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President Donald Trump claimed that two aspects of his experience uniquely suit him to dealing with America’s adversaries abroad: His toughness and skill at brokering deals developed through years in the cut-throat world of New York real estate. 

These qualities, he has claimed, would allow to face down two of America’s most determined foreign adversaries — Iran and North Korea — which have exasperated US presidents for decades. 

His strategy follows a pattern been dubbed “maximum pressure”: Ramp up economic sanctions against the regimes, threaten, bully and mock their leaders – then offer to negotiate, and in negotiations offer economic relief in exchange for new limits of their nuclear abilities.

But so far the strategy has had, at best, limited success. In the case of Iran could spectacularly backfire just as Trump gears up his case for re-election in November. 

Iran targets oil supplies and high-profile US targets 

Back in 2016 when he was campaigning for the presidency, Trump pledged to scrap the Iran nuclear deal brokered by his predecessor Barack Obama. In 2018, he made good on the promise — claiming the deal had failed to curtail Iranian aggression. Instead he promised to negotiate a new deal to conclusively end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

He imposed a series of punishing sanctions on the Iranian regime, sending its economy into freefall, then offered to talk to Iran’s leaders, holding out the promise of an end to the economic pain. 

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.
Associated Press/Khalid Mohammed

But Iran has refused to respond to Trump’s overtures, and has instead responded by growing ever more aggressive in its rhetoric, and restarting work at nuclear sites that had been abandoned under the Obama nuclear deal. 

Iran and its proxies have launched a series of audacious attacks against US allies in the region, and even the US itself.

In June, Iran shot down an advanced US surveillance drone. Trump considered a massive retaliation, but demurred, arguing that no American lives had been lost.

In September, an Iran-linked attack on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia cut off 5% of the world’s oil supply and sent markets into chaos. Iran has also been blamed for attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf. 

And in an incident with clear echoes of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 that helped end Jimmy Carter’s presidency, on Tuesday protesters and members of Iran-backed militias swarmed the US embassy in Baghdad, breaching a perimeter wall and torching a reception area.

The attack was a response to US strikes on the Kat’aib Hesbollah militia, which killed 25. 

The incidents highlight how exposed US forces in the region are to potentially humiliating attacks.

Trump has threatened military action against Iran in response to its aggression.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” he wrote in a tweet Tuesday. 

But, having been elected on a pledge to end US military entanglements abroad, its a message that could live to haunt him. Back in June, he showed his reluctance to committing to military action against Iran, pulling out of planned airstrikes at the last minute after Iran shot down the US drone. 

With Trump’s reelection far from secure, it seems unlikely the leadership in Tehran would enter negotiations while the prospect of Trump being replaced by a Democratic politician continues to exist. In the meantime, it can highlight its capacity to inflict further reversals on the US.

North Korea’s nuclear program continues

Trump’s belligerence towards North Korea in the first year of his presidency had some observers fearing that the US could be on the brink of war. The president threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the reclusive state in the wake of a series of provocative weapons tests, and ridiculed its leader, Kim Jong Un, as “rocket man.”

He squeezed the state with ever-more-punishing economic sanctions. 

Initially the strategy seemed to have provided the potential for an astonishing breakthrough. 

US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Kim agreed to meet Trump, and, after a series of high profile summits Trump showered praise on the leader of the brutally repressive state, claiming they had fallen “in love.” 

But these negotiations achieved very little. 

Kim froze the new weapons tests that provoked Trump’s ire —but US intelligence agencies say that the state has continued to quietly develop new nuclear weapons.

Recent satellite images show activity at sites where military scientists are developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be fitted with nuclear warheads to target the US and its allies. 

In a New Year’s Day message to the North Korean people, Kim warned that further economic “belt tightening” lay ahead, and pledged to never relinquish his nuclear arsenal, long seen as a guarantor of its power. 

It seems likely that in election year Kim will also bide his time, offering Trump vague assurances while avoiding any serious concessions.

Or, in launching a new missile test he could choose to humiliate Trump, exposing the emptiness of the president’s hopes for denuclearization.

A weak-spot for Democrats to hammer

Democrats campaigning for the presidency will likely seize on the lack of progress by Trump on North Korea and Iran to portray the president as a reckless gambler with US national security. 

Scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, Joe Biden has argued, was a “self-inflicted disaster” which further inflamed Middle Eastern tensions.

Trump’s lavish praise for Kim and appearances alongside him, critics say, has allowed Kim to claim prestige and legitimacy denied to North Korea by successive US presidents.

Further provocations from Iran or North Korea could further expose Trump’s lack of clear success on the international stage, and the limitations of his “maximum pressure” strategy. 

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