On March 8, the White House announced that US President Donald Trump had accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to hold talks, sparking various international reactions. Many have welcomed it as a first step toward preventing a potential nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang. Some, however, have been more skeptical and are asking what will happen if such a meeting ends without concrete results. Iran is likely among the countries that are not too happy with the news, since a potential deal between Trump and Kim could have negative consequences for Tehran.
Iran is first and foremost concerned about the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Even if the nuclear deal survives the upcoming May 12 deadline for Trump to sign sanctions waivers, successful talks between the United States and North Korea could further threaten the JCPOA. The assumption here is that in the event of successful talks, Trump will likely boast that he is a better negotiator than his predecessor Barack Obama, thus moving to tear up the nuclear deal and instead defend his own potential agreement with North Korea.
But this is not Tehran’s only source of concern. In an infamous State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, US President George W. Bush described Iran, North Korea and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” Similarly, while the international community may see North Korea as the biggest global threat given its possession of nuclear weapons, Trump is seeking to characterize Iran as an equally worrisome threat to international peace by pursuing the same doctrine and strategy as the Bush administration. Therefore, Tehran is worried that a potential American breakthrough with North Korea will, more than ever, shift US focus onto Iran.
Azizollah Hatamzadeh, an Iranian writer and foreign policy expert, told Al-Monitor, “Iran does not favor an agreement between the US and North Korea for two reasons. If they reach a deal, confronting Iran will become the Trump administration’s priority and main file.” He added, “The more US-North Korea relations normalize, the more it will influence Tehran’s ties and cooperation with Pyongyang. If North Korea wants to move toward denuclearization, its nature of action will change, and it will no longer fight the US like Iran does. Thus Iran will be alone in pursuing this path.”
Meanwhile, Iranian officials have yet to react to the potential talks between Washington and Pyongyang. This can be evaluated from two perspectives. They may either see no reason or prudence in commenting on the situation or they may simply not be too optimistic about its outcome.
Former senior Iranian diplomat Nosratollah Tajik told Al-Monitor, “Considering Trump’s policies and slogans of unilateralism and ‘America First,’ it is unlikely that this country, during the Trump era, will reach any vital agreements with international organizations or other countries, let alone reach such an important agreement and over such a sensitive and strategic issue with one of the most complicated countries in the world [North Korea].” He added, “On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the North Korean issue has become a complex global crisis, the solving of which, if possible, will require a long road to be taken. The role of regional players such as China should also be taken into consideration when seeking a solution. Therefore, the will of the two parties alone is not enough to reach a deal.” Tajik brought up a good point, namely the time required for potential talks with North Korea to reach fruition.
Meanwhile, May 12 looms on the calendar as the date when Trump must extend sanctions relief to remain in compliance with the JCPOA. At present, the general mood in Tehran is that this is not likely to occur. If that turns out to be the case, all speculation about the potential negative impact of US-North Korea talks on the JCPOA will likely end. Instead, the complete opposite may happen, namely that Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA may negatively impact talks with North Korea. In other words, North Korea then might be less likely to trust the United States, seeing its departure from the Iran deal as a lack of commitment to agreements.
In this vein, Tajik told Al-Monitor, “Trump remaining in the JCPOA in the current fashion does not have much benefit for Iran. Having the Sword of Damocles constantly over Iran’s economy will not be useful for us. At the same time, the resolution of issues between the US and North Korea will clearly leave the door open for future measures against Iran on the part of Trump.”
But not all in Iran have the same view. Prominent economist and political analyst Saeed Laylaz told Al-Monitor, “In my opinion, Iran is not a priority for the Trump administration. He has made China his priority. Solving the situation with North Korea falls in line with this same framework of imposing more pressure on Beijing. Of course, a group of people around him are trying to bring Iran to the forefront. However, we should remember that the basis of Trump’s views is the economy. He neither believes in foreign policy nor understands it.”
While there is no news on when precisely Trump and Kim will meet, reports say preliminary preparations are being made. As such, one can only wait and see if this dialogue will occur — and if so, what impact it will have on the regional, and even international, order.