Many on the pro-deal side seem to believe that the JCPOA strengthens America’s hand vis-à-vis Kim Jong Un. This awful analysis of North Korea springs from the same mindset that depicts Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate and the nuclear deal as a tool to reinforce pro-Western forces among Tehran’s ruling elite. North Korea is an Orwellian nightmare of vast cruelty, violence, and slavery. How could anyone still believe that the United States could use bribery—the driving contention of the 1994 Agreed Framework that aimed to curb the North’s nuclear program—to dissuade the North Korean regime from continuing its nuclear quest, which now entails the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles? Perhaps this disposition derives mostly from fear—it’s just too frightening to contemplate the possibility of another war on the Korean peninsula, so one bends the analysis of the regime to allow a diplomatic option, a sliver of hope, to exist. But that doesn’t mean you can bribe a totalitarian state.
I seriously doubt that Donald Trump can do anything to convince Kim Jong Un to relinquish his nuclear arsenal, given the enormous North Korean conventional military threat to Seoul and the big benefits that come to Pyongyang from possessing nuclear weapons. But if something is possible, it will be because Trump has reanimated the specter of American might. The Islamic Republic’s religious fascists aren’t as Orwellian as the North Korean Communists. Iran’s Islamic culture—some of the very institutions that allowed the Islamic revolution to triumph—have braked the lethal nastiness and oppression of the mullahs and kept more humanity in Persian society. Nonetheless, the regime is deeply, unrelentingly ideological, and Gordon, just as with the Kim dictatorship, appears to believe it’s possible to bribe it.
So what should the United States do against the Iranian regime? First, walk from the deal and snap back the nuclear sanctions (returning American sanctions to full force will actually take time). Until the administration leaves the JCPOA, the national-security bureaucracies won’t get serious about devising a strategy against the Islamic Republic. That’s just the way Washington works. Second, make it clear that if Khamenei drives towards the bomb, Washington will respond militarily. Third, establish a no-fly zone against Iranian and Russian aircrafts throughout southern and eastern Syria. All Iranian Revolutionary Guard and militia air and ground transport into Syria should be interdicted. Fourth, maintain American special-operations forces in Syria and restart, this time seriously, an American effort to build Sunni Arab and Kurdish forces capable of defeating Syrian regime forces. Irrespective of the JCPOA’s dénouement, the French likely remain open to a more serious Franco-American partnership in the Levant. Washington should embrace that partnership. Fifth, bunker down U.S. forces in Iraq. Play the best diplomatic and aid game possible with the Iran-hostile and Iran-suspicious Shia, which is easily a majority of the Iraqi Shia. Sixth, deploy a serious covert-action program aimed at the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s scientific establishment. The primary objective: Sow dissent and encourage defections. Seventh, make it clear that the United States, always ready to open the U.S. embassy in Tehran, seeks to support a free, democratic Iran and will align all of its actions in the region around that ultimate goal.
The range and depth of what the United States can do against the regime is large and far beyond the confines of this essay. Patience and perseverance and a willingness to use force, however, are required. Still, despite the president’s dim view of the nuclear agreement and the Islamic Republic, the odds are decent that Trump will follow the footsteps of President Obama: The Great American Retreat will continue. Obama’s most important legacy likely will survive.