Written by David E. Sanger
After coming to office vowing to solve two very different nuclear crises, President Donald Trump finds himself in a bind familiar to his predecessors: careening toward a confrontation with Iran and stalemated with North Korea.
Iran’s announcement Monday that it expects within 10 days to blow past the limits on how much nuclear fuel it can stockpile opens a new and perilous phase of its confrontation with the West.
After a year of restraint, during which Iran complied with the terms of an agreement that Trump very publicly abandoned, there is a greater sense than at any time in recent years that what began as an effort to drive Iran to the negotiating table may instead push the two countries into a conflict leaders on both sides insist they do not want.
Iran is still well more than a year away from being able to build a weapon — perhaps much longer. North Korea, by contrast, already has dozens, and appears to be adding to its arsenal at a rapid clip, according to US intelligence experts, despite Trump’s insistent wooing of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.
It is not clear yet what Trump is getting in return. On Monday, President Xi Jinping of China, whose government has kept the North alive with fuel and aid, announced that he would make his first state visit to Pyongyang, a huge propaganda victory for Kim. Kim also met recently with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The message seems clear: Even if he cannot reach an agreement with Washington, Kim has other cards to play, keeping trade and relationships alive with the two powers that helped his grandfather fight the Americans nearly seven decades ago.
But while Trump sees Iran’s threats to resume nuclear production as an urgent crisis, one leading to the decision Monday to send another 1,000 troops to the region, he is so invested in his newfound relationship with Kim that he actively dismisses evidence that North Korea’s collection of weapons and missiles is expanding.
“I don’t know,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News over the weekend, appearing not to know about those assessments, or not to believe them. “I hope not. He promised me he wouldn’t.”
Broken promises — real, imagined and misunderstood — are at the core of both standoffs. The Iranians believe they agreed in 2015 to a 15-year moratorium on producing new nuclear fuel — and that in return they would be able to integrate themselves into the global economy.
But Trump declared the accord a “disaster” and abandoned it over the objections of many of his top advisers, his European allies, and Russia and China.
If the Iranians make good on their threat to break through the restrictions on how much nuclear fuel they will produce, by next month Tehran may have enough fuel for a single bomb in less than a year, for the first time since the 2015 agreement went into effect. (It would take it significantly longer, experts estimate, to build a deliverable weapon.)
The one-year buffer is the safety threshold that the Obama administration set years ago and that the Trump administration has adopted to impede Iran from gaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon. But leaders appear to be testing whether the rest of the coalition that negotiated the nuclear deal — especially the big European powers — will stick with Washington.
Should the Europeans break with the Trump administration and agree to help Iran weather harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States, Tehran said, it could avoid breaking out of the 2015 agreement. That seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, the Europeans blame Trump for pushing Iran into violating an accord they all thought was working. And despite calls from some hawks in Washington for military action — most recently Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who said Sunday that attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman “warrant a retaliatory military strike” — Iran is betting that this time Washington will find few allies willing to escalate the confrontation, either in the Persian Gulf or through attacks on the country’s nuclear facilities.
It is a huge game of chicken, and a miscalculation on either side could easily provoke a conflict.
Now Trump faces two immediate challenges when it comes to Iran: making the Persian Gulf safe for oil shipments and keeping Iran from edging toward the bomb-making capability that incited the crisis of a decade ago. Neither will be easy.
“Unfortunately, we are heading toward a confrontation,” Iran’s ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidinejad, warned CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday.
That view may be a calculated one, intended to peel the Europeans away from Trump. But the past few weeks have cast doubt on Trump’s campaign promise that his occupancy of the Oval Office would so restore respect for American power that adversaries would give up their nuclear weapons programs.
On Iran, the theory was that once he abandoned the Iran deal and reimposed sanctions, Iran would crack. By some measures the sanctions worked: Iran’s economy has shrunk 4%, its currency has cratered and its inflation rate soared.
But rather than crack, the Iranians escalated, leaving Trump without any easy options.
“The US seems to have embarked on its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign with few allies and little forethought as to unintended consequences or how to respond if key assumptions — e.g., that Iran will implode or succumb and enter talks on US terms — prove false,” Brett McGurk, Trump’s former special envoy for the global coalition against the Islamic State, wrote recently.
He added: “Those assumptions are now highly questionable at best, which means the entire policy foundation as articulated by Trump has eroded. Iran appears to have made the strategic decision (not surprising) to resist economic pressure and respond asymmetrically, not directly against us.”
Compounding the problem is the emerging confrontation in the Gulf. Even the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, no friend of Trump’s, says the evidence is overwhelming that Iran was responsible for the attacks on the tankers.
Securing the Gulf for oil tankers would require enough naval vessels and reconnaissance capability to monitor just about every ship passing close to Iran’s shores.
“That requires a coalition,” said John F. Kirby, a retired rear admiral who participated in the tanker wars of the 1980s and served as the State Department spokesman during the negotiation of the Iran deal. “We don’t have enough ships to do it ourselves.”
Whether the United States can convince allies to supply additional ships may be a test of how big a price Trump has paid for alienating the other nations that were part of the 2015 agreement and that also fear Iran’s move to a bomb.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested Sunday that China, among others, should help with that task, since it is so dependent on oil from the Middle East. But it is far from clear that China, Russia or the three European powers that negotiated the nuclear accord alongside the United States — Britain, France and Germany — are willing to join in that effort.
As these dramas play out, no one is watching the Iran confrontation more carefully than Kim in North Korea. He has played Trump much more skillfully than the Iranians have, engaging him first in a feel-good summit meeting and then, for a year, rejecting the administration’s definitions of “denuclearization.”
Trump, for his part, turned down a request from Kim to end sanctions in return for dismantling only a part of the North’s nuclear infrastructure. But he has backed away from threatening what he once called fire and fury, and Kim may well be betting that as long as Iran dominates the headlines and the White House’s attention, he can keep producing missiles, fuel and weapons.