A New US National Security Team Confronts Difficult Choices with Iran and North Korea

Number: 36


Dr. Jack Caravelli


Sebastian Maier


Brief statement

By US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal as well as by engaging with North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, the Trump administration has decided to embark on a set of issues fraught with both opportunity and risk. Skillful diplomacy will be at a premium, requiring not only the president’s focused engagement but that of his new national security team as well. 


US President Donald Trump came to office having inherited a pair of seemingly intractable problems in regard to Iran and North Korea. The two countries’ peculiar historic relationship only adds to the complexity of the situation. Events over the past several years are forcing the Trump administration to simultaneously confront these two major political problems with nuclear weapons issues at their core. Iran maintains nuclear weapons options resulting from the flawed 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, and on May 8, 2018, President Trump announced he was ending US support for the deal and imposing new sanctions on Iran, setting in motion a flurry of diplomatic activity in Europe and the Middle East. In Asia, the unexpected and rapid progress of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities, as well as the challenge of navigating Kim Jong-un’s latest diplomatic moves, demand equally momentous decisions from the administration. Its approach has been to pursue negotiations aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A bilateral summit is scheduled to begin on June 12 in Singapore. There are unique elements and capabilities in Iran and North Korea’s respective programs—the DPRK’s nuclear weapons capability is more advanced than Iran’s, for example—but at the same time, it is certain that both nations will be watching how President Trump and his new national security team deal with the other to identify signs of weakness and areas of possible exploitation. Trump’s decision on May 8, is a potential new beginning, not the last word, on this most complex of policy questions. All this will be followed shortly thereafter by US talks with the DPRK. No timetable has been established for the talks beyond the initial round on 12 June, and North Korean officials have said little about its proposed timelines or objectives beyond the most obvious points. If they occur at all, it is almost certain the talks now definitely will follow Trump’s decision on Iran. For this reason, it is certain the North Koreans will be tracking closely US actions and decisions. What is much less certain is what lessons the North Korean leadership will draw from Trump’s choices on Iran. This paper addresses the issues and choices available to the Trump administration in responding to the nuclear ambitions of Iran and further contextualizes the recent developments surrounding American nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis North Korea.