Donald Trump

Will Iran and North Korea Capitulate to Trump?

Trump's tough talk is likely to backfire.


American presidents have spent countless hours negotiating with adversaries to reach mutually bearable compromises on matters of security. The Trump administration, however, doesn't believe in negotiating or compromise. It believes in making demands and issuing threats to force the other side to capitulate.

This is how the administration approaches both Iran and North Korea. In a speech Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed 12 concessions that will be required of Iran, from ending all its nuclear activities forever to withdrawing from Syria to cutting off aid to armed militant groups in the Middle East.

Pompeo realizes Iran may not leap to make his wishes come true. So he has a couple of clubs in the closet.

The first is "the strongest sanctions in history," which would leave Iran "battling to keep its economy alive." The second is to go after "Iranian operatives" and their surrogates and "crush them." If Iran restarts its nuclear program, he thundered, "it will mean bigger problems than they'd ever had before."

This strategy matches what Donald Trump used toward Kim Jong Un: Demand the regime give up its nukes; apply "maximum pressure" through sanctions; and warn of "fire and fury." Trump claimed a historic breakthrough by arranging a summit with Kim next month.

But the North Koreans haven't given up anything important yet, and they've threatened to cancel over the denuclearization demand—which Trump softened Tuesday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spurned Pompeo: "Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?"

Trump and his advisers, however, think they have made both regimes an offer they can't refuse: Capitulate or die, either by economic strangulation or by a barrage of U.S. missiles. There is no reason to think either will comply.

Both tactics have been tried before. We maintained a trade blockade on communist Cuba for more than half a century, and the government survived. So did Iraqi President Saddam Hussein under stringent sanctions in the years between the first and second wars with the U.S.

Our experience with North Korea is discouraging. In 1994, after President Bill Clinton ordered a military buildup on the peninsula, it signed an agreement to abandon its nuclear quest—only to be caught cheating years later. President George W. Bush tightened sanctions and rattled sabers in response to the violations, to no avail.

Iran may see nothing to gain from buckling under. John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar at the University of Chicago who visited Iran in December, told me, "My sense is that most of those who negotiated the nuclear deal regretted it, because the sanctions have never really been taken off." Having tried once to escape sanctions, the regime is unlikely to trust any U.S. commitment.

Nor is it clear the administration can make sanctions hurt as much as they once did. Before, we had the cooperation of China, Russia, and the European Union, none of whom is behind us now. North Korea has always had help from China—which may not be willing to do more to squeeze its economy.

"I've studied every instance of economic sanctions since 1914; Trump's plan flies in the face of virtually every study of economic sanctions," Robert Pape, another University of Chicago professor, told me. The main debate among experts, he says, is about whether, as a rule, sanctions are "marginally ineffective or counterproductive."

The administration places its ultimate faith in the military option. It thinks Iran and North Korea would back down rather than invite war.

But the Tehran government may figure it could survive a U.S. attack and restart its nuclear program at sites our bombs couldn't reach. It could retaliate by launching missiles at Tel Aviv.

North Korea, which has dozens of nuclear warheads, probably believes it could deter an attack by vowing to vaporize Seoul, Tokyo, or even Washington. There is also the risk that China would enter the fight against us—as it did in 1950.

When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, it promised a quick and easy triumph, only to find itself in an endless bloody slog. If Trump fails to get his way and opts for war, the consequences could be disastrous in the case of Iran and apocalyptic in the case of North Korea.

It's nice to dream that we can impose our preferences on the world by issuing commands. But as Defense Secretary James Mattis has been known to point out, the enemy also gets a vote.