Why Iran and North Korea are Currently Testing Trump

At a time when the Trump administration has been distracted by the coronavirus, both Iran and North Korea are currently testing US President Donald Trump’s resolve as his foreign policy record will face scrutiny in the upcoming November election.

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un ordered his military to bolster his country’s nuclear deterrence recently. In his first public appearance in three weeks, Kim implemented new policies to boost North Korea’s nuclear war readiness during a meeting with the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, according to state news agency KCNA. 

Testing Trump on Foreign Policy

The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, had also warned Trump of retaliatory measures against the US if Washington causes problems for tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela. The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran has reached Venezuelan waters, and these shipments are expected to temporarily ease the South American nation’s fuel crunch while also defying the Trump administration’s sanctions aimed at the two US rivals.

As for North Korea, its leader warned the US President last fall that he had until the end of 2019 to restart denuclearization negotiations. Since the beginning of this year, the North Korean regime has continued testing missiles. In late March, the nation’s government fired an unidentified projectile into the sea near Japan’s coast, marking its sixth launch in one month.

Like with all US presidents, Trump came to power hoping to end North Korean hostilities toward America with good intentions. He went to great lengths to make peace with North Korea’s regime in a way that no other US president has ever done before. For example, he has publicly met Kim numerous times and he became the first sitting US leader to take 20 steps into North Korea.

However, the Hanoi summit ended with no deal in February because the US would not compromise on sanctions relief after the North Korean leader offered to close a nuclear facility at Yongbyon in return.

Trump Needs China’s Help to End Pyongyang’s Nuclear Program

Victor Cha, who was the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, believes that Trump cannot hope to achieve a successful outcome in North Korea without the help of China. However, now that the coronavirus has pitted Washington and Beijing against each other, cooperation on this issue is unlikely. For example, Beijing’s payments that maintain the North Korean regime’s existence should be tied to denuclearization. This means that Trump is unlikely to make any progress in persuading North Korea to surrender its nuclear program before the November election.

Compromise of Some Kind is Inevitable

With all the countries that signed up to the 2015 Iran Deal distracted by the coronavirus as well, Trump will find it difficult to convince his allies to tackle the threat from Tehran, even though it is clear that Rouhani is becoming increasingly hostile following his recent remarks that Israel is a ‘cancerous tumor.’

Last October, French President Emmanuel Macron managed to persuade the Iranian leader and the US President to agree to a four-point document that would pave the way for the end of Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions against Tehran. However, a meeting between Trump and Rouhani never happened as the former refused to lift any sanctions in a sign of good will to Iran.

It is not entirely Trump’s fault that his first term has ended with no real progress being made to tackle the twin threats of Iran and North Korea. The coronavirus will continue to distract the world’s attention and whilst China’s involvement in Pyongyang’s denuclearization program is crucial, Washington and Beijing look likely to engage in another war of words soon. But if the US President is serious about forcing Rouhani and Kim to surrender their nuclear weapons, he must ease his sanctions against both their countries at some point should he win a second term.