Iran and North Korea are wildly different versions of the same threat, and the White House has taken wildly different approaches to them.
Yes, it is a flawed deal in some respects: It doesn’t curtail Iran’s regional behavior entirely, or forever. But it does (or at least did) deal with the most dangerous issue — their pursuit of the bomb — for about a decade, during which time a lot can improve and hardliners can die out on all sides of a conflict.
This week has shown that that prediction was only half right.
Iran’s economy continues to suffer from US-instigated sanctions and may do so more as petroleum-related waivers expire.
Any US conflict with Iran would be messy, asymmetrical, long-winded and cost America’s regional allies dearly, but there is no doubt the US would prevail at what they would regard as an acceptable short-term cost. Their proxies in the region would likely do a lot of the fighting.
But Trump and his team just don’t need the hassle — especially with re-election looming — so they are making it clear that they don’t mean the tough talk to go anywhere nasty. And ultimately, war with Iran would be messy — but it would not involve a nuclear holocaust. Yet.
So, Trump has opted to largely ignore the urgency of this threat and to focus instead on his ability to bridge the gap through personal charm.
Trump’s approach to each of these nuclear conundrums also informs the way the other plays out.
Iran sees that North Korea made a lot of aggressive noise and raced ahead with work on its bomb and ballistic missiles, and that its reward for doing so was a personal summit with Donald Trump.
Tehran can be pretty sure that Trump’s offer to answer the Iranian President’s phone call will still be on the table when they are better armed.
North Korea sees clearly that the US wants to talk tough with Iran but doesn’t really want conflict. But you can’t play with the idea of war. It isn’t a threat you can make but not mean — doing so sets in motion a cycle of escalation.
Kim Jong Un will also see something else much more clearly: that Trump doesn’t want war with an economically damaged, isolated nation like Iran, who presents little serious threat to the US in direct military conflict.
Each of Trump’s enemies is learning from the experience of the other, and the White House remains none the wiser.