There is only one story in the international media this week – And rightly so. The historic meeting in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was unthinkable just a few short months ago. The implications of their summit this week will reverberate way beyond the two countries themselves – Most obviously, regional powers such as South Korea, Japan and China will look on with interest and a degree of anxiety. But perhaps the country which will view this week’s events in Singapore with the greatest concern, is Iran.
For a start, Tehran’s leadership will have noted that at the end of the day, Kim’s bellicose rhetoric and North Korea’s defiant posturing counts for very little. In the final reckoning, North Korea has no choice but to play ball. It is a country on its knees economically and almost totally isolated diplomatically. Kim is many things – A dictator, a brutal ruler, perhaps a fantasist – But he is also apparently a realist. He is young and can expect to sit on the Pyongyang ‘throne’ for many decades. Will he spend that time in ‘glorious isolation,’ bringing inevitable destitution and desolation to his country? He knows that he must seek an alternative. He must consider some sort of engagement with the wider world, even with his nemesis in Washington. Even ruthless tyrants need a future.
And so too does Iran. Watching the unthinkable unfold in Singapore this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani and the rest of the Tehran regime will have been acutely aware that they too face a bleak future. And more to the point, unlike North Korea’s downtrodden masses, the Iranian public is increasingly unafraid to dissent, to demonstrate publicly against their government. Street protests have become an almost daily feature of life in Iran. More and more, Iranians see that the isolationist and belligerent approach of their leaders has severe economic consequences. This week, more than ever before, the Iranian public will also understand that nuclear armament is not the answer – It has not saved North Korea from an awful economic and diplomatic reality. With increased clarity, Iranians will see that nuclear weapons won’t put bread on the table. The Tehran leadership will be nervous.
Iran’s leaders will have also noted with considerable concern, the process which brought Kim to the table. In true Trumpian style, there was nothing subtle about Washington’s approach. For months, Trump used the bluntest of language to denigrate the North Korean leadership. In recent months, Washington has been similarly brutally honest about the nature of the Iranian regime – Just last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branded them “brutal men” responsible for “well-documented terror and torture.”.
And the result of Washington’s tough approach to Pyongyang has been mind-boggling. In Singapore, Kim committed to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” The language is of course noticeably vague, but the sentiment alone is an incredible statement from a man who routinely threatened nuclear destruction. If Trump is to be believed, he also exacted some very real concessions from Kim, including a halt to missile and nuclear tests, also reiterating the earlier release of three US hostages. Tehran will be acutely aware that these are the concessions of a nuclear armed country. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are not enough to stave off economic or diplomatic reality.
In short, Singapore is a lesson in two things. It is a lesson in desperation. The Trump-Kim summit shows what can happen when a tyrannical regime has nowhere else to turn. And it is also a lesson in what determined global powers can achieve, when they are prepared to apply pressure. These are lessons that Europe’s leaders would do well to learn fast. Prime Minister May, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, the leaders of the so-called E3 nations, appear to be jumping through hoops to appease Iran and ensure the survival of the JCPOA. But this is certainly not the time to treat Iran with kid gloves. Its people are restless, the reinstatement of US sanctions is starting to pinch, and Tehran is increasingly isolated over its role supporting Assad in Syria and other chaos in the region.
It means that an unparalleled opportunity exists to repair some of the flaws of the JCPOA. There exists a very real chance to give the agreement the teeth it so glaringly lacks over ballistic missiles, its expiration date and other issues. Ultimately, if Kim Jong Un can be forced to soften, so can Khamenei, Rouhani, Zarif and the rest of the Iranian leadership. The time has come to turn the screws on them. There has never been a better time to do so.