For those wishing to understand the emerging role of the United States in the Middle East, especially regarding the ever-expanding role of Iran, watch North Korea. The long-term effects of U.S. President Donald Trump's aggressive posture toward the Hermit Kingdom are not yet clear, but change has occurred. For the first time in 68 years, a leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, walked across the border to South Korea. In a region of the world where maintaining face is paramount, this was possibly seen as a sign of submission.
Insights on how President Trump will deal with Iran and its nuclear weapons program can be gained from examining how he dealt with North Korea. North Korea and Iran have exchanged technology programs and have actively sought to assist each other in weapons programs.
President Trump, throughout his administration, has been focussed on North Korea and has expended considerable financial and political capital on the issue. This effort is aimed at three North Korean programs that create regional and global instability: nuclear weapons, an electromagnetic pulse weapons capability and the missile programs that make delivery of these weapons possible. A host of other international actors would also undoubtedly love to see these programs dismantled.
At the same time, an expansionist Iran continues further to destabilize the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Morocco and Israel, to name just a few countries, are facing Iran and its proxy states, such as Qatar, and could understandably nervous about becoming the next Yemen. Iran's programs threaten them, as well as Iran's own exasperated citizens.
Iran's expansionist mode was propelled even further by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a personal agreement that former President Barack Obama made with Iran, but never signed by the regime.
In short, the deal gave Iran a huge amount of cash and lifted of some sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to roll back parts of its nuclear program. The deal appears to favour Iran with no discernable change in outlook on their weapons and missile programs, and legitimates its nuclear breakout capability in just a few years.
It is possible that President Trump might accomplish what other American Presidents have not: that North Korea may be willing to denuclearize verifiably – give up all its missiles and chemical weapons -- in exchange for having the country brought into the 21st Century.
That a possible "complete denuclearization" of the entire Korean Peninsula may occur is a shift unthinkable only a year ago. North Korean President Kim Jong-un has stated that he will blow up the nuclear site tunnels in his country before the next round of negotiations. Whether this grand gesture is driven by a fundamental desire for progress, or whether the nuclear test site has lost its value due to an internal physical collapse of the site, is not clear. Either way, it is a step ahead.
Why would North Korea's President take the unprecedented step of stepping across the North/South border? One reason, ignored in much of the discussion, is that where previous talks with North Korea over the last several decades worked on carrot and stick negotiations, this time President Kim Jong-un may have been persuaded to the table by a fear for his political future.
Although much discussion exists about President Trump being unpopular and out of control, a careful reading may suggest otherwise. From an intelligence and military analysis point of view:
- North Korean President Kim Jong-un leads a brutal dictatorship and maintains himself in power through cronyism, pure violence and fear – possibly even more so than his father or grandfather. While this kind of leadership gives him power, it also makes him fragile. Lacking much in the way of a popular power base, he can be, as all dictators are, fearful of overthrow by those closest to him, particularly if his ability diminishes to keep his supporters in the style to which he has accustomed them.
- The second factor is that President Trump has made a series of highly unusual moves, many of which have not been examined or appreciated in what appears a hyper-partisan mainstream press.
The mainstream media has reported much about the deployment of American aircraft carriers in the region and well as B1-B , B2 and B52 bombers -- part of the coverage about traditional ground and air military exercises.
In March of 2017, however, the South Korean press reported that the SEAL TEAM 6 was in South Korea. These reports suggested joint military drills, simulating the kidnapping, or a decapitation strike, aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. SEAL TEAM 6, incidentally, is the same group that killed Osama Bin Laden, hiding in Pakistan. Such announcements are rare; one wonders who were the real intended recipients of the message.
In April of 2017, the submarine USS Michigan docked in South Korea and the port visit made public. The true import of this event was missed by many. In plain language, the USS Michigan is a huge submarine powered by a nuclear reactor with a massive weapons capability. In its early form as a ballistic nuclear missile carrying submarine, it could, quite literally, destroy continents with its 24 Trident missiles, each with between 8 and 12 warheads. The USS Michigan has now been converted to a guided-missile carrying submarine, which can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a variety of warheads. The USS Michigan also has two silos that can deploy mini-submarines, each of which can deliver a complete SEAL Team and an extensive array of equipment.
Pictured: The guided-missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN 727) arrives in Busan, South Korea for a port visit, April 24, 2017.
The submarine service is highly secretive. The security surrounding nuclear-powered and nuclear- weapons-capable submarines is understandably exorbitant. The security around the deployment of special forces on these submarines is even greater. Yet, in October 2107, the USS Michigan again made a port call that was made public. The message to North Korea and to President Kim Jong-un was: We are here. In your back yard. You could be escorted from power, as was Haiti's former "president for life," Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
Concessions of the Past
North Korea, under its two previous presidents, may have grown used to extracting concessions from the rest of the world – acts sometimes referred to as extortion or blackmail. By simply yelling and making threats, North Korean leaders were able to get money, influence, and exceptional treatment (read: countries looking the other way) for its nuclear program. When President Kim Jong-un tried this same approach on the United States last year with a series of demands and missile launches, concessions were not offered. When the North Korean president threatened the U.S. and others by saying his nuclear weapons program was complete and his launch button within reach, President Trump responded: I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
What has this to do with Iran?
When you look at human rights issues, Iran, a theocratic dictatorship, is listed as one of the worst countries to live in. Women have been crushed into submission, and gays face persecution by the state,. In addition, Iran's own citizens are subjected to sham trials, tortured and killed.
Iran is listed in the U.S. as among the world's leading state supporters of terrorism and has been a key figure in supporting President Bashar Assad of Syria, who has been bombing his own people with chemical weapons.
As with North Korea, the senior leadership is kept in power through fear and terror.
The Supreme Guide of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also known as "The Jurist," is kept in power by the Council of Guardians. The muscle is provided by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Subordinate to the IRGC, at least nominally, is the Qods Force, a sort of overseas special forces unit. The Qods Force has been listed as a terrorist entity by Canada, and the USA. Egypt included the Qods Force on a list of nominations for terrorist entities operating in Syria. The al Qods force is also believed to have operated in the Middle East, Sudan, South Asia and Western Europe.
The IRGC, which has grown powerful and wealthy, controls a large segment of Iran's economy. To what degree they are independent of the political leadership is not clearly understood -- especially if the economy should suffer an unfortunate downturn.
Although lifting sanctions on Iran has benefitted the country, the IRGC has apparently been a major beneficiary: much of the new money has been diverted into upgrading the IRGC's military capabilities . It remains unclear what, if any, benefits have accrued to the general population of Iran since the 2015 signing of the nuclear deal. The population has apparently not outwardly felt any tangible benefits despite higher levels of oil exports and economic growth.
North Korea and Iran
There are not many unstable states that can currently threaten global stability and, in particular, American interests. Among those that can are North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Russia, a relatively stable major nuclear power, falls into a category of its own.
The Trump Doctrine, if it can be called that, for dealing with emerging nuclear power states, is itself emerging. Financial pressure will be applied through sanctions. Military force will be threatened, and the survival of the regime will be called into question. In Iran, the real power figures are the Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani and the two men who run the IRGC: Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and the commander of the Quds Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani. With the Iran Deal on the rocks, these are the figures who are most likely to feel their lives disrupted.
Based on this precedent, it is not surprising to see press articles already suggesting that General Soleimani has been "green lighted" for assassination.
What can one asses from all of this? Either you work with President Trump or you might be personally inconvenienced, so to speak.
The second message is to the Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran. If Iran continues its present path of expansionism, the results might not be agreeable. Cooperate, and things could improve.
Many observers, critical of President Trump and his approach, claim Trump and his administration lack consistency and do not have a clear message. Seen differently, unpredictability can be of use.
For whatever reason, President Trump is one of those people who seems to enjoy operating in a state of unpredictability, or is willing to create some to exploit the uncertainty associated with it. He is a builder and a real estate developer, which means he wants to see results in real time as well has envisioning a long-term outlook.
What can one conclude from all of this? First, North Korea is a warm up. The main target is Iran.
Second, combined with, cyber power, financial sanctions, a new style of diplomacy, traditional forms of warfare -- "the continuation of policy by other means," as to Carl von Clausewitz pointed out -- is emerging. The leaders of fragile dictatorial states with limited popular support may be facing a multi-front series of attacks, kinetic and cyber, as well as assurances of bewilderment if they continue to threaten global order. They should not be sleeping well at night.
Tom Quiggin is a former military intelligence officer, a former intelligence contractor for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a court appointed expert on jihadist terrorism in both the Federal and criminal courts of Canada. He is the author of SUBMISSION: The Danger of Political Islam to Canada – With a Warning to America, written with co-authors Tahir Gora, Saied Shoaaib, Jonathon Cotler, and Rick Gill with a foreword by Raheel Raza. The book is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions. He is also the primary contributor to the QUIGGIN REPORT podcast.
N.B. This article is based in part on the Quiggin Report Podcast #8 Playing Chess: Donald Trump, North Korea & Iran. This podcast can be heard on Patreon or on SoundCloud, Stitcher and iTunes.