It’s a simple question to ask: Do we have a vital national interest in preventing our self-declared enemies from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons?
It’s not been a simple question to answer: President Obama struck a deal that conceded a nuclear weapons capability to Iran’s rulers in exchange for their promise to reach that goal more slowly.
Mr. Obama’s policy toward North Korea, known as “strategic patience,” rested on a similar premise: That Pyongyang would not develop the means to annihilate American cities so long as he was in the White House.
Such policies are defensible — if you subscribe to the theory that despots inevitably moderate over time, and that such moderation can be accelerated by showing them respect and addressing their grievances. I am unaware of evidence or experience in support of that theory.
President Trump appears to be taking a different approach. Surely an America that is “great again” does not permit its enemies to obtain the means to slaughter — or even threaten to slaughter — millions of Americans on American soil.
He seems to recognize that therapeutic diplomacy, with some attempted bribes mixed in, has proved inadequate. In a major speech last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed that the U.S. would exert “unprecedented” economic pressure on Tehran’s theocrats.
Similarly, Mr. Trump promised a “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea. But in anticipation of a meeting with dictator Kim Jong-un, he has backtracked, saying on Friday: “I don’t want to use that term. It’s not a question of maximum pressure.”
Perhaps that was merely an expression of his unconventional negotiating style. Perhaps he isn’t about to fall into the same traps as have past American presidents, making concessions to tyrants — and providing them with billions of dollars — in exchange for “commitments” they can flout with impunity. As Mr. Trump might say: “We’ll see what happens.”
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is now reportedly planning to visit Mr. Kim. You may recall that U.N. monitors found evidence that the Kim regime helped Mr. Assad develop the chemical weapons he has used to murder Syrian civilians. According to a U.N. Panel of Experts report issued this year, Mr. Kim continues to assist Mr. Assad with chemical weapons, and with ballistic missiles as well. And in 2007, North Korea attempted to build for Mr. Assad an illicit plutonium reactor. The Israelis found out about it, bombed it and destroyed it.
My colleague, Anthony Ruggiero, who spent 17 years focusing on North Korea at State, Treasury and Congress, has strongly suggested that Mr. Trump communicate to Mr. Kim in no uncertain terms that should this meeting take place it will trigger immediate and grave repercussions.
By now, this much should be obvious to anyone paying close attention: Mr. Kim regards deliverable nuclear weapons as the great equalizer, the means by which he can keep America at bay while he plots to rule the entire Korean peninsula. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants such weapons in pursuit of an even more ambitious objective: Dominating the Middle East and spreading what he calls the Islamic Revolution around the globe. “Death to America” is a longer-range goal, one that Mr. Kim would heartily welcome.
The two “supreme leaders” may settle for less — but only if they are convinced that their regimes are in imminent danger of collapse.
Mr. Trump can lead them to that conclusion by committing, without reservation or equivocation, to a “maximum pressure” campaign. That means imposing massive sanctions, harsher and more comprehensive than anything we’ve seen so far, on North Korea, the Islamic Republic and any nations that attempt to assist them. It means severing their decaying economies from the international financial system, drying up their liquidity and reducing the value of their shrinking currencies.
If the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and other friendly nations make clear that international corporations can have access to their markets or that of the Islamic Republic but not both, the executives running those corporations will have little difficulty choosing.
It would be helpful if the administration also were to mobilize all domestic energy resources that can be utilized as transportation fuels, including especially natural gas. Doing so could both stabilize and lower the price of oil. Iran’s rulers would end up with less money to spend on advanced centrifuges, ICBMs, terrorists and mercenary militias.
At the same time, those Iranians who have been risking their lives protesting the regime’s mismanagement and corruption deserve whatever support we can give them, both overt and covert.
Finally, a credible threat of force must be implicit. During the Obama years, our adversaries could be confident that America’s military need not be a serious concern.
Such policies, if implemented and enforced with iron determination, can push the regimes that rule Iran and North Korea to the brink. At that point, they may consider making meaningful changes — not because the arc of history bends toward justice, not because they want to better the lives of their people, and certainly not because they aspire to become members in good standing of the “international community.” They will change for one reason only: To survive.
Is it possible that by then it will be too late to prevent their enfeebled regimes from collapsing? Yes, but that should not be our mission, only our hope — ours and that of the millions of people these regimes oppress, terrorize and threaten.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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