Once upon a time world leaders used discreet diplomatic channels or dedicated secret telephone hotlines to exchange important messages.
No No longer. President Trump has invented a new diplomatic genre, namely public personal Tweeting, with added CAPITAL LETTERS:
“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
History may or may not reveal what exactly prompted this portentous message. Today we can note the important difference between the philosophical approaches taken by the Trump Administration towards two ‘difficult’ countries, namely North Korea and Iran.
The policy issues for Western capitals raised by North Korea and Iran have things in common. Both leaderships run oppressive systems that fail to deliver prosperity. Both revel in defying the international community by running nuclear programmes that seem to lead to their acquiring nuclear weapons sooner or later. Both use belligerent rhetoric aimed at the United States in particular.
Both North Korea and Iran export trouble, albeit in very different ways. North Korea has survived by threatening South Korea with unavoidable military disaster. Iran invests heavily in attacking Israel through Hezbollah and promoting militant Shia factions beyond its own borders.
On the other hand, the two countries have utterly different internal political cultures. North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un presides over a tight, ruthless communist dictatorship that is flirting with small-scale economic liberalization. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei leads a much more turbulent society that has its own rigged democracy and rigged market system.
Western policy towards both North Korea and Iran has moved to and fro between ‘engagement’ and ‘pressure’. It has been broadly assumed that there is nothing much to be done to change the regimes in either country without causing even worse problems. So the emphasis has been on containing/managing the problems they create through classic ‘sticks and carrots’. Pain inflicted by stern economic sanctions in response to the worst provocations; and the prospect of normalizing relations and rapid improvements in return for cooperation on key policy agendas (above all no nuclear weapons).
President Trump has crashed through all that diplomatic nicety. But he’s doing it in completely different ways.
With North Korea he has engaged personally with Kim Jong-un through their meeting in Singapore. He’s offered a radical new deal:
“What if you normalize relations with South Korea and with us and stop all this nuclear stuff? If we work together you and your elite can stay in business far into the future, winning global respect. Maybe a Nobel Peace Prize! And you’ll be rich!”
But to Iran’s leaders he’s saying (in effect) the exact opposite:
“You’ve had your chance. You’ve failed. You’re no longer part of a solution – you’re the biggest problem! Weak Obama sat back and watched you oppress Iranians calling for freedom. Not me! I’m going to help decent Iranians BRING YOU DOWN!”
The speech in California this week by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo spelled this out in a way unthinkable for the Obama Administration.
Pompeo listed in detail the different ways that top Iranians have massively enriched themselves: “Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.”
Most important, Pompeo made clear that this time Washington throws its weight behind Iranians calling for radical change: “Our focus is to work with countries importing Iranian crude oil to get imports as close to zero as possible by November 4th. Zero … While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country, the United States in the spirit of our own freedoms will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people”.
Risky? Yes. Obnoxious? Arguably.
But imagine if this all works. North and South Korea do strike a deal leading to full normalisation. And the revolutionary Islamic regime that has run Iran since 1979 crashes into dust.
Hope and Change?
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