By virtue of its military might, the United States has the unique ability to quickly — and credibly — place its most intractable adversaries under existential threat. Command over the world's most powerful military gives a country options, and the option of regime change can be a tempting one for Washington as it tries to work through some of its more maddening foreign policy dilemmas.
A government living under the constant, lurking threat of decapitation does not particularly enjoy stewing in its own paranoia over what social fissures its enemies can exploit, which allies they can turn and what chain of events could finally push the United States into action. That's why a nuclear deterrent is such an alluring prospect: What better way to kill your adversaries' fantasy of regime change than to stand with them as near-equals on a nuclear plane?
This is North Korea's rationale as the country closes in on demonstrating that it has a fully functional nuclear weapon and delivery arsenal. But Washington's nuclear dilemma doesn't end with Pyongyang. Whether Tehran attempts to return to its treacherous path toward nuclear armament rests in large part on just how seriously the White House entertains and attempts to execute a policy of regime change.
Preventing Another North Korea
North Korea is set to prove to the world that it has attained a nuclear deterrent. With the Nov. 29 test of its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile yet — and plenty more demonstrations to come in the months ahead — the country is on track to show that it could field a reliable, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and that it has the arsenal necessary to weather a first strike. The window to launch a preventive strike on North Korea is rapidly closing. And in turn, the odds are growing that the United States, along with the countries in and around the Korean Peninsula, will have to accept the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea and prepare instead for a pre-emptive strike in case Pyongyang decides to launch an attack.
The result will be a new and unstable pattern of nuclear deterrence in the 21st century, one in which the unique challenges of communicating with the North Korean government will leave the door open to potential miscalculations. More Cold War-era arms agreements that rest on reliable communication among nuclear peers will come under threat. China and Russia, after all, fear that the irreversible buildup of the United States' ballistic missile defense network will undermine their own strategic deterrents and will have less incentive to abide by obsolete arms pacts as a result. Despite continued calls for diplomacy to bring Pyongyang to the table and somehow prevent North Korea from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, the chances are slim that Kim Jong Un's administration will trust a last-ditch negotiation. No amount of security guarantees from the United States will persuade Pyongyang that Washington, its allies or even Beijing has wholly abandoned their designs for regime change. Furthermore, Kim has commissioned an assassination campaign with global reach to ensure that any potential alternatives to his rule are eliminated early on. With its survival on the line, North Korea has an existential commitment to achieve its nuclear objectives.
The United States is weighing the risks of carrying out a preventive military campaign to avoid entering the dangerous new global order. But the associated costs of starting a war in Northeast Asia and plunging the world into recession make this scenario less likely. Even though he inherited a near-impossible timeline to neutralize the threat, U.S. President Donald Trump won't take kindly to North Korea fulfilling its nuclear ambitions on his watch. When the time comes to reckon with this reality, his administration will probably reframe the issue as the product of decades of negligent and ineffective policy. The president will then set his sights on Iran, vowing to avoid a repeat of such a colossal failure in U.S. foreign policy.
In fact, the effort to shift attention from North Korea to Iran has been underway for some time. Trump has made clear that he sees the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the deal his predecessor, along with four other countries, made with Iran to deter it from pursuing nuclear capabilities — as flimsy and wholly insufficient. The U.S. administration, moreover, has expressed its frustration that the deal's terms inhibit the imposition of economic sanctions in response to other threats from Iran. By decertifyng the JCPOA, Trump meant to send the message that he was serious about confronting the Islamic republic. To strike a deal in the first place, the previous administration and the JCPOA's other signatories had to focus negotiations solely on Iran's nuclear program, setting aside broader problems, such as Tehran's covert support for militant proxies, its development of ballistic missiles and its alleged human rights abuses. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the JCPOA's other parties affirm that Iran is upholding its end of the agreement. Yet the current occupants of the White House have used infractions unrelated to the deal, such as ballistic missile testing, to blur the JCPOA's terms and justify reintroducing sanctions.
Consequently, Iran will have much to contemplate in the coming year as it weighs the pros and cons of abiding by the JCPOA. Compared with North Korea, Iran sees a nuclear deterrent as more of a luxury than a strict necessity. Iran's reliance on global energy trade, its heavy exposure to intelligence oversight from hawkish neighbors like Israel and its people's ability to channel economic discontent into political change make its pursuit of nuclear arms more perilous. At the same time, the country's layered political structure, formidable security apparatus, challenging terrain and ability to disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz offer it useful insulation against its adversaries' attempts to bring down the clerical government. In addition, Iran's influence across the Middle East gives it leverage with the United States. Either by helping U.S. interests, for example in the fight against the Islamic State, or by hindering them — through threatening maritime vessels or backing militant proxies against U.S. allies — Tehran can influence its dealings with Washington. These factors led Iran to conclude that it could strike a bargain with the United States over its nuclear program to get economic reprieve from sanctions and reduce the potential for a military conflict in the Persian Gulf.
But the JCPOA wasn't just about the nuclear program. Implicit in the framework was a deeper understanding between Washington and Tehran. Both sides understood there would remain a number of points of contention between them as they competed in proxy battlegrounds across the region. Still, in signing the deal, the United States was downgrading the potential for conflict in the Gulf region, thereby signaling to Tehran that it was taking any earlier plans for regime change off the table.
Now, in trying to directly discredit the JCPOA, the Trump administration risks stripping away those security guarantees and putting Iran back in an existential mindset that could push it onto the nuclear path once more.
A spate of leaks and acknowledgments from the U.S. president himself over the past year have revealed Trump's disdain for anyone trying to block his Iran agenda and his respect for hawks on Iran policy. (The former group includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while the latter category includes U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been rumored to be next in line to head the CIA should Trump decide to replace Tillerson with Pompeo.) The more frustrated he becomes with the North Korean dilemma, the more energy the U.S. president has put into lining up loyalists to try to limit interference in his agenda for Iran. Two key figures in the Middle East have exerted heavy influence over that agenda: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders, in fact, are so eager for the opportunity to shape a more aggressive U.S. policy toward Iran that they are downplaying their animosity for each other and collaborating in the open.
Iran's leaders will now have to assess how far the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli triumvirate will go in trying to contain their country. Iran still has the benefit of a strong European defense for the JCPOA. The White House would risk a major confrontation with the Continent's powers were it to attempt to unilaterally end sanctions waivers and reinstate secondary sanctions on foreign firms doing business with Iran. And enforcing additional sanctions would be difficult without buy-in from Iran's main trading partners. With that in mind, Tehran will probably take care in the coming months to avoid blatantly violating the JCPOA and driving the Europeans back to the United States' side on sanctions — even as a growing competition with Washington emboldens Iran's hard-line politicians. At the same time, Tehran will look for ways to strengthen its burgeoning relationship with Russia to counterbalance the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli alliance.
Even if the framework of the JCPOA survives, however tenuously, Iran will still be on alert for other aggressive U.S.-backed efforts to destabilize its political system. After all, if the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia believe that the nuclear deal is fundamentally flawed and that they must compel Tehran back to the negotiating table, they'll need to find ways to credibly threaten the Iranian government's continued existence. Iran will be on the lookout for a range of threats, from a concerted military campaign against its Lebanese proxy militia, Hezbollah, to a cyberattack on its critical infrastructure to covert efforts to sow sedition in the Islamic republic. And even if the United States could coerce Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal, Washington's reputation for honoring that kind of pact is already deep in question. Agreeing to abandon the quest for nuclear weapons didn't save Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, as Pyongyang and Tehran well know.
Overturning the JCPOA will compound the challenges the United States faces in finding diplomatic solutions to nuclear-sized problems. Moreover, a nuclear-armed North Korea would only complicate matters further. The cash-strapped country may find its coveted deterrent to be a lucrative asset in a pinch. And should the United States convince Iran of the JCPOA's impending demise, Pyongyang may have a willing customer in Tehran.
The Luxury of Distance
Trump's more assertive stance toward Iran isn't an anomaly in U.S. foreign policy. Since the JCPOA took effect — a milestone that was arguably necessary to reduce the threat of military conflict in the Persian Gulf and to freeze Iran's nuclear program — the Islamic republic's economic recovery and re-engagement with the West has threatened to upset the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran, free from the fetters of sanctions, suddenly had more energy and resources to throw into its proxy battles in the region, at the expense of critical Sunni powers. The United States, in turn, was bound to shore up support for its Sunni allies and seek out new ways to keep Iran contained, regardless of who was conducting policy in the White House.
Even so, there is such thing as an overcorrection in policymaking. Trump's willingness to wholeheartedly endorse the Saudi plan for cutting Iran back down to size sets him apart from his political contemporaries and predecessors. Along with trying to discredit the JCPOA, the U.S. administration has backed Riyadh's short-sighted campaigns to isolate Qatar and to try to force a Saudi agenda down the Lebanese government's throat. These moves, all sorely lacking in subtlety, at times suggest an ideological bent to target Iran at any cost.
But the United States doesn't have to shoulder the historical baggage and the centuries of animosity that drive competition in the Middle East. It has the luxury of distance, from which it can manipulate the balance of power at will. In other words, while Israel and Saudi Arabia perceive Iran to be an existential threat, the same may not be true for the United States. Its removal from the situation gives Washington the space to manage Iran through a more assertive policy of strategic containment that stops short of reintroducing the menace of regime change and thus keeps the country from having to resort to more extreme measures. Therein lies the difference between strategic and ideological policymaking. As the North Korea conundrum gives rise to a more precarious age of nuclear deterrence, that difference will matter all the more.