Trump’s ‘tough’ talk raises risks with Iran

Donald Trump, no doubt with confidence after believing his tough talk on North Korea has achieved amazing results, is trying tough talk against Iran as well. But as with North Korea it is a high risk approach, with a real risk of war if things go wrong.

USA Today – Trump: Killing Iran nuclear deal will send ‘right message’ to North Korea ahead of talks

President Trump linked his threats to kill the Iran nuclear agreement with his hopes to strike a deal with North Korea deal on Monday, saying Kim Jong Un should know that the U.S. will walk away if it doesn’t think its partners are committed to compliance.

 “I think it sends the right message,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Again attacking the “horrible” deal with the Obama administration struck with Iran, Trump said that “in seven years that deal will have expired, and Iran is free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons. That’s not acceptable.”

Trump, who faces a May 12 deadline on whether or not to certify the Iran deal, said he is still open to negotiating a new agreement. He also cited claims by the Israeli government that Iran is cheating on the agreement by pursuing nuclear weapons in spite of their pledge not to do so.

“I’m not telling you what I’m doing, but a lot of people think they know,” Trump said. “And, on or before the 12th, we’ll make a decision.”

Trump spoke about Iran and North Korea on the same day he said he may be willing to meet with Kim at the demilitarized zone on the North-South Korea border, with a date to be determined.

In past weeks, Trump and aides have said that both Iran and North Korea should know that they are willing to walk away from any high-level agreement if they do not believe the other side is acting in good faith.

If either Iran or North Korea don’t think Trump is acting in good faith things could work out badly too.

Reuters Commentary: How bullying Iran could backfire for Trump

Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran of lying “big time” about its nuclear program. In a theatrical announcement Monday, the Israeli prime minister presented files and CDs that he claimed show Tehran hid secret nuclear plans after signing the multinational 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement.

In response to Netanyahu, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared in a tweet: “The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again.” As I carefully documented in my book, Israeli officials have since 1992 continuously attempted to convince the international community that Iran is developing nuclear weapons – all while refusing to discuss its own nuclear capabilities.

The Israeli leader’s PowerPoint presentation has – in a remarkable coincidence – come just ahead of a key deadline for U.S. President Donald Trump to decide on whether to withdraw from the agreement.

Coincidence? I thought it looked like being very deliberately timed.

Past and present Israeli allegations aside, Netanyahu offered no substantive evidence that Iran is violating the JCPOA. Much of his presentation focused on Iran’s nuclear program in the years before it signed the deal; Iranian compliance with the accord has been repeatedly confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. security and intelligence officials. Regardless, Netanyahu has probably given Trump more impetus to do what he’s wanted to do since his campaign undo the Iran nuclear deal.

While Netanyahu’s play may give Trump encouragement to scrap the Iran deal it is likely to also influence the approach from Iran.

Over the past 15 months, Tehran has accused Trump of failing to live up to U.S. commitments on sanctions relief under the deal by encouraging other countries not to do business with Iran.

Implicit in Trump’s approach is that he can bully and pressure Iran into meeting his demands. However, the track record of U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 Iranian revolution leaves little room to believe that Iran concedes to pressure.

If Trump withdraws from the JCPOA, he should not do so thinking Iran is vulnerable and in dire straits. Contrary to the perception of some in Washington, Iran’s key economic indicators are strong and growing. Its GDP grew 11 percent last year, average real per capita income is on the rise, and the price per barrel of oil is hovering around $70 and on an upward trajectory. Politically, President Hassan Rouhani seems secure after being re-elected with a significant margin over his nearest rival last May.

Trump would be committing a major strategic miscalculation if he believes that withdrawing from the nuclear deal leaves Iran with no options but to continue abiding by the agreement. Rather, Tehran’s adherence reflects the strength of its commitment to its international commitments and eagerness to build confidence with Europe and other international partners.

If Trump withdraws, Iran could use the deal’s main dispute mechanism to refer U.S. non-compliance to the UN Security Council. That would isolate Washington and needlessly set it on a path of dangerous escalation with Iran. Abrogation of the agreement could also allow Iran to justify ramping up its nuclear program.

Which would be a backfire for Trump.

The end state to Trump’s approach on Iran could very well be war. Such a conflict will not only portend devastating consequences for the United States and Iran, but further destabilize the Middle East as it tries to move on from the scourge of Islamic State.

The staged chanting of ‘Nobel, Nobel’ at a recent ego-stroking public rally in Michigan may have been a bit premature (and bullying the Nobel panel may also backfire).

 If Trump really wants “bigger deals” with Iran, he should build trust by properly implementing the JCPOA, and then engage Iran with respect and not insults.

But Trump thinks that insulting Kim Yong-un has achieved results there – also a premature judgement – so may think it will work everywhere in the world.

It’s a high risk approach that could as easily make things worse rather than better – and it may only need one insult too many against Iran or North Korea or Russia to precipitate something much worse.

Trump seems to think that playing world politics (it can hardly be called diplomacy) is like playing a game show. But it is a lot more complicated than ratings driven win-lose theatrics. It may not be Trump who starts the firing.

 

Historic meeting in Korea, an end to the war?

For the first time since North and South Korea split into separate countries after the 1950-53 war the leaders of the two countries have met, at the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have said they will formally end the war (which has never been done to date) and will work towards complete de-nuclearisation of both countries.

This is just a step – many meetings have been held over the years (just not between leaders) – but it is a promising step in the right direction. Credit should be given to both leaders for this.

RNZ: North and South Korea announce end of Korean War

The two countries plan to sign a peace treaty, formally ending the Korean War this year, the 65th anniversary of the armistice.

“There will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun,” the statement says.

The two leaders agreed to work for the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

Smiling and holding hands, the leaders met at the heavily fortified demilitarised zone between the countries on Friday, pledging to pursue peace after decades of conflict.

Mr Kim became the first North Korean leader since the 1950-53 Korean War to set foot in South Korea, stepping over a concrete curb marking the border at the truce village of Panmunjom to shake hands with his counterpart.

“We are at a starting line today, where a new history of peace, prosperity and inter-Korean relations is being written,” Mr Kim said before the two Korean leaders and top aides began talks.

Mr Kim told Mr Moon he would be willing to visit the presidential Blue House in Seoul, invited Mr Moon to Pyongyang, and said he wanted to meet “more often” in the future, the official said. Just days before the summit, Mr Kim said North Korea would suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantle its only known nuclear test site.

So a promising move but a lot to happen yet, including a meeting between Kim and Donald Trump planned for next month. Trump may have helped nudge the Korean leaders towards this meeting and pledges, but he is still a loose cannon who could as easily make trouble as make a historic move for the US.

Reuters:  From nuclear weapons to peace: Inside the Korean summit declaration

In the agreement, the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete decentralization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and “agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard”.

Such language is similar to past declarations, however, and South Korea offered no additional details beyond saying it would closely cooperate with the United States and the international community on the issue.

Past efforts to entice Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program have failed in part due to North Korean demands the United States withdraw its troops from the peninsula and remove its “nuclear umbrella” of support for the South. South Korea has said Kim may be willing to compromise on this traditional sticking point, but no new details were announced at the summit.

Trump and the US will have to play a part in this.

South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea and the idea of an official peace deal to change that is not something that can be resolved by the Koreas alone. So the declaration calls for meetings with the United States and possibly China, which were both involved in the conflict.

South Korean leaders at the time opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice, which was officially signed by the commander of North Korea’s army, the American commander of the U.N. Command and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”, who were not officially claimed by Beijing at the time.

North and South Korea have seriously discussed the idea before. In 1992, the two sides agreed to “endeavor together to transform the present state of armistice into a solid state of peace”.

The last inter-Korean summit in October 2007 concluded with a declaration by the two Koreas to “recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime” and “to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war”.

Again Trump and the US are important to this.

A Reuters analysis shows the five decades of communication between the two Koreas.

North and South Korea are technically still at war, and contact between them was almost nonexistent after they accepted a truce at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Since the early 1960s they have held hundreds of official meetings.

The more frequently the two sides have communicated, the fewer incidents there have been between them. But the number of meetings has yet to recover from a peak of nearly 90 sessions in 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the past, the volume of communication varied dramatically depending on who was in charge in the South. From the late 1990s to 2007, there was a prolonged period of increased dialogue under policies driven by an approach in the South known as “Sunshine.”

That came to an end in 2008. Now Kim Jong Un is presiding over an accelerated missile programme and has tested a rocket which could reach Alaska. Southern president Moon Jae-in has pledged new efforts to boost dialogue, but sceptical analysts have dubbed his efforts “Moonshine.”

Here’s a look at the history of every discussion, agreement and major incident – from spy submarines to bombs on planes – between the two sides.

Progress will depend on the intent and determination of both leaders, and also of their main allies China and the US.

Bigger button bozo

It must be increasingly difficult for supporters of Donald Trump to defend him or divert from his stupidity with ‘fake news’ or ‘…but Clinton’.

One of Trump’s latest tweets:

I hope we won’t find out if it will actually work or not. Of course he still has supporters, like:

FFS.

Trump’s tweet deserves this sort of ridicule:

Source:  Trump to Kim: My nuclear button is ‘bigger and more powerful’

Unsurprisingly, Mr Trump’s unorthodox words sent social media into a frenzy.

It ended a quick-fire day of tweeting that included taking credit for a lack of airplane crashes, announcing awards for “corrupt media”, and threatening to pull aid from Palestinians who do not show “appreciation or respect”.

But it must be a real concern that ridicule may some time tip Trump over the edge.

 

Talks between North and South Korea

When Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017 in South Korea he pledged engagement with North Korea, including an offer to hold inter-Korean military talks about ceasing hostile activities along the border. But he was snubbed.

However in his New Year message Kim Jong-Un said he was open to dialogue (as well as warning the United States he had his finger on a ‘nuclear button’.

RNZ:  Kim Jong-Un has ‘nuclear button’ on desk

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has warned the United States that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk ready for use if North Korea is threatened, but he has offered an olive branch to South Korea, saying he is “open to dialogue” with Seoul.

Rather than encouraging US measures that “threaten the security and peace of the Korean peninsula,” Seoul should instead respond to overtures from the North, Kim said.

“When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment. Both the North and the South should make efforts.”

Kim said he will consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics Games to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

“North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show unity of the people and we wish the Games will be a success. Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility,” Kim said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said North Korea’s participation will ensure safety of the Pyeongchang Olympics and proposed last month that Seoul and Washington postpone large military drills that the North denounces as a rehearsal for war until after the Games.

South Korea has responded positively. RNZ: South Korea sets date for high-level talks with North

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon proposed on Tuesday that representatives could meet at Panmunjom, the so-called “truce village”.

“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties,” said Mr Cho.

“I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said earlier today that inter-Korean relations were linked to resolving the North’s nuclear program.

“The improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program, so the foreign ministry should coordinate closely with allies and the international community regarding this,” he said in opening remarks at a cabinet meeting.

Analysts think that the offer for talks from North Korea may be an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.

US-based experts saw Kim’s speech as a clear attempt to divide Seoul from its main ally, Washington, which has led an international campaign to pressure North Korea through sanctions to give up weapons programs aimed at developing nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.

“This speech pokes at the fissure that has lain below the surface in US-South Korean relations, and seems designed to drive a wedge there,” said Douglas Paal, a former senior US diplomat who heads the Asia program at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“President Moon needs a successful Olympics and the US drive to increase pressure fits poorly with the Southern agenda.”

Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia until last April and now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said there was an argument to be made to encourage North Korea’s Olympic participation but that it should not be taken too far.

“It’s perfectly legitimate to dial down some of the signaling and the rhetoric … but not to load up their tray with concessions in advance. We should reward responsible behavior, but not try to bribe North Korea into behaving; that doesn’t work,” he said.

Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul said Mr Kim was likely to tone down his weapons testing – at least ahead of the Olympics.

“What North Korea is most afraid of is being forgotten in the international arena,” he said. “Without launching missiles and conducting a nuclear test, North Korea will be in the spotlight just by attending the Winter Olympics.”

Donald Trump has responded viw Twitter:

As is common Trump is factually wrong.

The last high-level talks took place in December 2015 in the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

They ended without any agreement and the meeting’s agenda was not made public.

Fear of military escalation, in particular of nuclear attack, whether intentional or not, will be strong incentive for both North and South Korea to work something out. China and Japan will also be very keen on de-escalation.

Putin warns of ‘global planetary catastrophe’ over North Korea

Vladimir Putin has warned of a “global planetary catastrophe” if the North Korea crisis tips over into war.

CNN: Vladimir Putin warns world faces ‘global catastrophe’ over North Korea

President Vladimir Putin warned that the escalating crisis over North Korea’s weapons program risks developing into a “global catastrophe” with mass casualties.

But Putin, speaking in China on Tuesday, cautioned against “military hysteria” and said that the only way to resolve the crisis was through diplomacy.

He warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has calculated that the survival of his regime depends on its development of nuclear weapons. Kim had seen how western intervention in Iraq had ended in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after which the country was ravaged by war, Putin warned, and Kim was determined not to suffer the same fate.

“Saddam Hussein rejected the production of weapons of mass destruction, but even under that pretense, he was destroyed and members of his family were killed,” Putin said.

Putin said that while Russia condemned North Korea’s latest actions, imposing any kind of sanctions would be “useless and ineffective.” Kim would rather starve his people than see his regime overthrown, he said.

“They will eat grass but they will not turn away from the path that will provide for their security,” he said.

Grass dripping with radiation will not be very palatable.

Fox News:

Person of the year has “the pique of an American Kim Jong Un”

Unsurprisingly Time has named Donald Trump as their ‘Person of the Year’. Trump has dominated politics in the US and has piqued substantial interest around the world.

But after upsetting China over contact with Taiwan and then reacting to raised Chines eyebrows with a Twitter storm Trump has been described  as “thin-skinned and reacts to criticism with the pique of an American Kim Jong Un”.

The world is watching with anticipation and quite a bit of trepidation.

David Ignatius writes Trump flunks his first foreign policy test.

Devising a wise strategy for challenging China’s ascendancy in Asia is arguably the top foreign policy task for a new president. But if Trump planned to take a tougher stance, this was a haphazard way to do it. The president-elect instead stumbled into a pre-inaugural foreign flap, insulting Beijing and causing it to lose face.

Worse, Trump’s fulminations about China come just as his plan to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership is undermining the United States’ standing with allies in Asia. Trump, in effect, is ceding economic ground to China at the very moment he claims to be taking a harder line.

Trump’s phone call Friday with Taiwan’s president needn’t have created this crisis. The Chinese at first seemed willing to give the inexperienced Trump a pass — blaming the precedent-altering call on “petty” maneuvering by Taipei. Beijing presumably recognized that this wasn’t the time to pick a fight, and Trump should have adopted the same stance.

But Trump, evidently feeling cornered, doubled down. He unleashed a Twitter storm about China’s currency manipulation (a largely bogus charge he repeated through the campaign) and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea (a real problem requiring strong, steady U.S. leadership). An embarrassed China is sure to take countermeasures, which will further confound U.S. policy.

The episode reinforced two points about Trump: He loves to be flattered by calls from foreign leaders (including “presidents” of countries the United States doesn’t recognize). And he’s thin-skinned and reacts to criticism with the pique of an American Kim Jong Un.

Perhaps Trump and his advisers will learn from his mistakes.

Or perhaps he doesn’t care – or it could even be a deliberate strategy.

Superpower relations will be put to an unprecedented test over the next few years. It’s high risk – Trump’s approach could force positive changes, but he is more likely to increase tensions and is at serious risk of precipitating some major problems.

I hope like hell that things don’t go nuclear, but even if that is avoided a lot of damage can be done with ‘conventional’ weapons, and financial crashes.