The Iranian deal and US foreign policy.

As expected, President Trump has pulled out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,and reactions ran the spectrum. Pulling out of JCPOA has be called an act of “vandalism,” a “disaster,” and according to Bernie Sanders, “has put America on the path to war.”

The goal of the deal was to halt the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In exchange for stopping its program, as well as shipping its enriched uranium abroad and allowing inspections, Iran had 100 billion dollars unfrozen and would be given permission to engage with the world economy, sanction-free.

Trump objected to the deal because the more intrusive measures retarding Iranian nuclear progress expire after 10 years. He objected to Iranian behavior because that they were testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and building a military network in Syria. Apparently, both of these warranted a withdrawal.

For the record, I think it was a bad deal but not because of the reasons raised by Trump. The Iran deal was bad because it only addressed Iran’s nuclear program and not the source of their nuclear ambitions.

There are number of explanations for why states seek nuclear weapons, but the historical record of nuclear proliferation is clear. As of today, there are 9 nuclear states. What each state had in common when they initiated their program was their security environment. Each and every state that has successfully gone nuclear was at one time a threatened state which could not outsource its protection to a more powerful ally. Non-threatened states that can go nuclear, such as Norway or Mexico, do not need them. States without the material or knowhow, such as Tanzania or Laos, for obvious reasons never do either. Threatened states which can outsource its security to a reliable ally, such as West Germany, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea, also do not acquire the bomb.

The conditions that convince a state to embark down the costly and controversial path towards nuclear weapons apply to Iran perfectly.

Since 1979, the state of Iran has had to exist in a highly unstable and hostile security environment. They have a Sunni regime to both the left (Saudi Arabia) and right (Pakistan), one of which is nuclear. Until 2002, they had a Baathist regime which they fought a bloody 8 year war against. And then there is the United States, which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq government, has upended three neighboring regimes in the last 15 years, supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and on a routine basis openly debates if it should attack Iran. Iran’s only benefactor, Russia, is viewed skeptically and considered unreliable. Frankly, when Iran looks beyond its borders, it sees a deeply hostile environment with itself in the center, largely alone.

This environment is rarely appreciated by the United States and is why the Iranian program makes perfect sense from a security perspective.

To note that there are structural reasons as to why Iran pursues nuclear weapons doesn’t excuse the government’s behavior. Iran is a terrible regime and routinely violates the basic human rights of its citizens, especially those already vulnerable, such as women and homosexuals. But that has nothing to do with their nuclear program. The issue is that American foreign policy is contradictory. America simultaneously pursues both regime change and denuclearization in Iran. The more the United States seeks to reform the domestic politics of Iran, the stronger the regime’s demand for nuclear weapons grows. Until this contradiction is sorted out, no treaty will be of any real value.

Is North Korea balancing against China?

HONG KONG — The immediate causes of the recent diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula are well known: stronger international sanctions against North Korea, approved by even China and Russia, and President Trump’s bellicose response to the recent intensification of nuclear and missile tests under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader since 2011.

 

But a more fundamental driver is being overlooked: China’s growing ambition to dominate East Asia. Mr. Kim’s apparent move to reconcile with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, is above all a gambit to get closer to America to keep China in check. He hopes to reduce North Korea’s overarching economic dependence on China and curb Beijing’s aspirations to control the future of the Korean Peninsula. After another surprise meeting between Mr. Kim and President Xi Jinping of China on Tuesday, the second in two months, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday that North Korea would release three American prisoners.

Could this be a new aspect of the pivot?

The author is Jean-Pierre Cabestan and you can read the rest here.

Israel the reckless driver.

Reports this morning are that Israel directly attacked Iran in Syria.

Here is reporting from the WaPo.

Confrontation between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria sharply escalated early Thursday morning as Israel said Iran launched a barrage of 20 missiles toward its positions in the Golan Heights.

Heavy military jet activity, explosions and air-defense fire could be heard throughout the night in the area. An Israeli military spokesman said the rockets were fired by Iran’s Quds Force, a special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, marking the first time Iranian forces have ever fired directly on Israeli troops.

This is typical reckless driving by our ally Israel and I suspect a consequence of pulling out the Iran deal. Reckless driving is the unintended consequence of America assuming the defense responsibility of a foreign country. States that receive American defense guarantees will have an incentive to be more aggressive in their foreign policy had they no such assumption that America would step in if they got themselves into serious trouble.

Because these states do not burden all of the costs of their actions, they act more aggressively.

We saw this in Yemen with Saudi Arabia.

We are now seeing it with Iran in Syria.

Bibi’s role

“His worldview is very clear,” said Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist who has long covered Mr. Netanyahu. “Iran is Nazi Germany. Israel is England. He is Churchill and America is America. His main goal has been to persuade Roosevelt to get into a conflict that will crush Iran. It didn’t work with Obama. But with President Trump he sees a golden opportunity.”

 

Mr. Shavit added that Mr. Netanyahu sees Iran as both dangerous and fragile, like the weakening Soviet Union that Ronald Reagan confronted, and wishes for a similar American approach to it: very assertive American diplomacy and sanctions that exploit Iran’s weakness to eliminate its danger.

The rest can be read at the NYT.

Why Trump supports diplomacy with North Korea but not Iran.

In the case of North Korea, the hurdles preventing the United States from pursuing its own best national interests and engaging with Iran do not pop up. There is no equivalent of MEK or AIPAC lobbying the White House on behalf of North Korea; there is no North Korean version of Sheldon Adelson to obstruct a push for peace with Pyongyang. North Korea presents President Trump with the opportunity to achieve success where his predecessors could not; a possible motivating factor for the president. When discussing North Korea, the president often throws the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations under the bus by voicing that the issue should have been handled long ago. Unlike Iran, the issue of North Korea has not galvanized a large and well-funded institutionalized policy sector devoted to curtailing engagement with Pyongyang. This provides room for US policy on North Korea to more accurately reflect US interests. For the Trump administration, this means that beyond the president’s showmanship and impulse to meet with Kim Jong-un, diplomacy can be given a chance with the hermit kingdom.

I do not understand the argument here.

  1. Trump is trying diplomacy with both Iran and NK. Pulling out of the Iran deal is still a form of diplomacy, albeit not smart in my opinion.
  2. These groups usually lobby congress, not the President.
  3. Why is their anti-Iran lobbying effective post 2016 but not prior?

The obvious reason Trump doesn’t like the deal is because it’s flawed and it was not negotiated by Trump but inherited. If we had an Asian JCPOA I suspect that he would be doing the same thing.

If the author is convinced that it is local politics and interest groups which explain Iran and not Korea, the more interesting question would be why there is no significant South Korean interest groups lobbying for/against a deal.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Is North Korean antagonism rational?

Nearly every serious thinker agrees that the North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. Rational in the sense that, like any other regime, the primary goal of the North Korean leadership is survival. Yet, unlike other regimes, the North Koreans have an immediate and capable threat at their doorstep. For the past 64 years, North Korea has had to discourage an invasion of an American military stationed directly at its southern border. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged as the most efficient and perhaps the only way of doing this.

The logic is pretty straightforward. When nuclear weapons are introduced to the bargaining process, victory becomes so costly that both sides are deterred from waging conflict, let alone pursuing regime change. This is because both sides are vulnerable to a nuclear strike, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. If a state has second strike capability then it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged they are in traditional military metrics as nuclear weapons neutralize any gains earned on the battlefield. As highly desirable it would be to dispose of the Kim regime and reunite the peninsula, the potential death of 200,000 South Korean civilians has, at least for now, been enough to deter American military action.

The issue, however, isn’t if North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. We all recognize that it is given their environment. The issue is whether those in Pyongyang abide by the rules of mutually agreed destruction. North Korean foreign policy very often appears to be a reflection of the personality of its leader. Both in rhetoric and action, North Korea can appear to be unpredictable and irrational. In the words of Nikki Haley, North Korean seems to be “begging for war.” On a fairly routine basis, the North Koreans threaten the United States and its regional allies. Japan was threatened with nuclear clouds.  The United States would be turned into “a sea of fire.” Even Guam was threatened with a “salvo or misses.” Even more provactivley, North Korea has on several occasions initiated conflict, sending missiles over Japan, sinking the South Korean Cheonan, and firing artillery shells at Baengnyeong Island in 2010.

If war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea, why do they constantly antagonize? After all, nuclear weapons were attained to ensure the survival of the regime, not lead to its end. I would argue that the belligerent and at times erratic behavior of North Korea is in fact rational. In order for nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a state has to convince others that they would indeed use them, despite it being suicidal. This is one of the great ironies of nuclear weapons as their unprecedented destructive power result in a loss of credibility. Prior to nuclear weapons, war was once a normal instrument of coercive diplomacy and the threat to use it could pressure others to bend politically. But in the era of mutual vulnerability, the second strike capability of your opponent makes the bargaining leverage of nuclear weapons futile. How serious of a threat are nuclear weapons if they ensure the death of the regime that would in fact launch them? A regime would have to be crazy to be the first to use them as they would be signing their death certificate. That is, unless, it was part of a strategy to convince an opponent to take their nuclear capability seriously.

Putting the North Korean belligerence in perspective is important because nuclear weapons do not make war impossible, no matter how catastrophic it would be. The United States has invested a lot of its reputation in resolving the Korean issue and there are audience costs. It is not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario that the United States tie its hands publically by drawing a line in the sand only to see North Korea cross it and escalate an already tense situation. Trump has already stated that his administration will never let North Korea advance their nuclear program to the point that they can harness an intercontinental missile with a nuclear weapon. Military action could be used to retard such progress creating a spiral until a nuclear strike is employed.

North Korea isn’t crazy. Despite North Korea “begging for war,” it’s the last thing they want. The United States should recognize that North Korea is stuck in the situation of having to defend itself by convincing the United States that it is willing to commit suicide. How exactly does a state coerce an opponent by threatening to kill itself? I assume the only way to do that is to appear unhinged and impetuous. The alternative interpretation of North Korean behavior is that their grand strategy has been to endure 20 plus years of sanctions and international isolation in pursuit of an end goal of self-destruction.

Good overview of the diplomatic nuances of the North Korea situation.

Here is one bit.

Number three, we have to work as closely as we possibly can with China in particular to work toward more of a coordinated strategy. The game we have played with China, and that China plays with us, is that we always tell China, “You could bring these guys to heel; if you really, really wanted to do it, you could.” The Chinese will say, “You Americans, you’re the threat to them,” and so on. We blame one another — that creates running room for North Korea.

You can read the rest here.

Forget Diplomacy With North Korea if Trump Decertifies the Iran Deal

While the deal with Iran is not directly tied to any prospective talks with North Korea, how the administration handles the Iran deal will set the broader environment for any talks with North Korea. On a basic level, it will signal that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner. The United States would not be abrogating the agreement with Iran because Tehran was not living up to its end of the agreement, but rather because the United States was not satisfied with Iran’s policies on other matters that were not related to JCPOA. Instead of choosing to engage Iran to resolve concerns over the regime’s support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the release of Americans in Iranian prisons, and its ballistic missile program, the United States would be leveraging the current deal to resolve these issues.

You can read the rest here.

A Reset for Iran and the United States

Broadly speaking, the United States will have three options with respect to Iran in the years ahead. The first is to try to contain the country through intensified U.S.-led sanctions and a coalition of regional states led by Saudi Arabia (and separately, Israel). The second option, which is not mutually exclusive to the first, is to seek regime change. The third is to use a variety of behavior-driven inducements to preserve the regional balance of power through détente. The third option is politically unpopular in the United States, would take much longer than the others to show its effects, and would be considerably more difficult to execute. It also offers the best combination of risks and rewards for the United States.

The author is  and you can read the rest at FA here.

The Iran Puzzle

Excellent editorial by the NYT on what role Iran plays in American Middle Eastern “strategy.”

Trump administration officials worry that the Iranians, aided by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, will seek control of enough territory in two adjacent countries, Syria and Iraq, so as to establish a land bridge from Tehran all the way to Lebanon. There they could resupply their Hezbollah allies, thus enlarging their regional influence.

I tend not to think that an emergence of a “Persian Crescent” is as big of a deal as other tend to make it be. Either way, without any conceviable strategy towards Iran in operation, the U.S. should cooperate with Tehran on overlapping interests (i.e. stability in Iraq, defeating ISIS, and frankly, keeping Assad in power) while the contrasting interests appear to be on the backplate (nuclear spread, Iranian meddling in Yemen (at least I haven’t heard of any Iranian meddling in the conflict as of lately) and state sponsored terrorism directed at Israel).