Of the three charter members of the "Axis of Evil" – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – Iran may be the last man standing, thanks to the guys with the crazy hair – Kim Jong-Un and Donald J. Trump.
The Iranian leadership's special blend of messianism, self-pity, and paranoia has fueled its hegemonic push West, through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and meddling in the territory of its neighbors, Yemen and Afghanistan. This makes sense in the regime's House of Leadership, while it husbands its nuclear weapons development capability for another day, thanks to the "Iran nuclear deal" or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it undercuts Iran's need to attract foreign investment to revive its deteriorating economy.
Despite the surprise election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, Iran's leadership no doubt hoped the opportunity for contracts for U.S. companies, read Boeing, would be too good to pass up despite candidate Trump's disdain for the JCPOA, which he called "the worst deal ever." And in May 2018, after delaying for over a year and giving the U.S. Congress or the other JCPOA partners an opportunity to fix the agreement, Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the "horrible one-sided" JCPOA.
On the other side of the world, North Korea's hereditary leader, Kim Jong-Un, had a face-t0-face meeting in Singapore with Donald Trump, who had only recently derided him as "Rocket Man." Kim has visited Beijing several times to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and made a historic trip to the Panmunjom truce village where he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and stepped over the border into South Korea, the first North Korean leader to do so.
What does Iran have to do to get some respect?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
There may not be much Iran can do because North Korea has one thing Iran lacks: neighbors who want a peace process to succeed and can brandish the appropriate carrots and sticks.
Iran's neighbor Iraq is key to Iran's regional strategy due to its location and large Shia Muslim population, but Iran's involvement increases Iraqi Sunni anxiety, leaving them open to manipulation by outside forces; Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have neither the financial or political heft to improve Iran's economy or its security situation; Turkey, a regional competitor, will likely bide its time as Iran's isolation continues; in the Southern Caucasus, secular Azerbaijan is wary of its militant neighbor, and Armenia is a shambles and hardly able to help itself much less anyone else. And across the Persian Gulf lies Saudi Arabia, anxious to take down its regional rival as its ambitious young ruler looks to reshape its economy and society.
Iran's remaining partners in the JCPOA - China, France, Germany, European Union, Russia, and the United Kingdom – are distant from the consequences of any regional instability and are primarily motivated by trade opportunities.
North Korea lives in an entirely different neighborhood. To its North are China and Russia, two permanent members of the UN Security Council and, in China's case, a diverse, growing economy – the world's second largest. To the South is South Korea, home of the world's eleventh largest economy and a vibrant exporter of cultural and technology products. Across the Sea of Japan is, well, Japan, a leading technology exporter and home of the third largest economy.
North Korea's neighbors have significant security concerns: China wants to stop North Korean refugees escaping across its border and to be able to mitigate the increasing stress in its relations with the Kim regime. South Korea is interested in threat reduction and family reunification; Japan can't move out of range of the North's missiles, so would like the missile and nuclear weapon programs to end. And the U.S., with 28,000 troops and numerous family members in the South, is fully invested in both denuclearization and a peaceful end of the Korean War, which started sixty-eight years ago in June 2018.
Chinese president Xi Jinping
If war broke out again on the Korean Peninsula, the effect would worldwide and immediate as South Korea is a vital part of the global supply chain for high technology equipment. And it's unlikely someone else could quickly pick up the slack: it is estimated that the replacement cost of the display manufacturing capability of Samsung and rival LG will top billion. In the words of one analyst, "If Korea is hit by a missile, all electronics production will stop."
So a major conflict in Asia will damage economies worldwide; more trouble in Iran's neighborhood, short of stopping all oil exports from the Persian Gulf, is Page 3 news.
President Trump probably looked at Iran and North Korea and correctly concluded that North Korea was the greater strategic threat to the U.S. and must be dealt with first. The North has intercontinental ballistic missiles that can soon reach the U.S. mainland, even if it now lacks warhead re-entry capability and terminal guidance technology. But Trump's strategy of "maximum pressure" was then amplified by Pyongyang's neighbors who have their own economic and political heft and who want the North to denuclearize and join the world economy.
Iran is a noisy, regional menace but is being countered in part by aggressive economic sanctions which, coupled with the regime's economic mismanagementand corruption, are doing more damage than a subversion campaign sponsored by the U.S. and its allies. But that's probably going on, too.
Kim signaled he was taking the country in a new direction in 2016, at the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, where he emphasized his policy of "byungjin" — or "simultaneous pursuit" — equating economic growth and the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems. His likely goal is to announce significant economic growth at the 8th Workers' Party Congress in 2022.
Kim Jong Un(KCNA)
In April 2018, Kim "declared victory on the nuclear front", allowing him to focus on the economy - and to be publicly responsible for the success or failure of his policies.
Shortly after Trump's return from his meeting with Kim, U.S. media reported North Korea had increased nuclear production at secret sites. Was Trump snookered by Kim as some observers hoped? Possibly, but Kim likely wants to maximize production of nukes and missiles, so he has more to trade when trading day arrives. He also needs to keep the military-industrial complex busy and motivated as he prepares for years of difficult negotiations with the U.S. and his neighbors.
Indeed, strategists at Korean conglomerate Samsung think North Korea is "already past the point of no return," and the economy will overtake the military as the regime's means of survival. If so, regime insiders will want to be rewarded for their fidelity, as visions of mobile phone licenses and mining concessions dance in their heads. Though North Korea is a long way from mass politics, economic success will enable Kim to solidify his popular base as a counterweight to regime insiders.
In fact, Kim may be ahead of his cadres in the new politics game. In 2017, in a national broadcast, he admitted "My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability," a startling admission from someone the subject of a pervasive personality cult. And Kim and Trump know a picture of two men shaking hands is enough to start a political reordering.
Where is Iran in all this? As part of North Korea's denuclearization, the U.S. will insist on implementing the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program in conjunction with monitoring by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. CTR was the way to prevent "loose nukes" – preventing the "proliferation of WMD [Weapon of Mass Destruction] and related materials, technologies and expertise from former Soviet Union states."
The U.S. will demand to know the extent of North Korea's cooperation with Iran (and Syria and Pakistan, for that matter). The information won't come cheap, but it will allow the U.S. and its partners to identify new key weapons development officials and facilities, and to attack the transport networks and financial systems that support Iran's WMD program. And those same networks probably support Iran's program of terror and subversion, most of it directed against Iran's neighbors, so political and security progress in Asia may pay dividends in the Middle East.
And time is of the essence, as the media recently uncovered the possible use of Danske Bank Estonia in Tallinn to finance weapons deals between North Korea and Iran. North Korea was the focus of the news cycle two weeks ago, but if its future disclosures lag media reporting, it will be continually reacting to disclosures about its money laundering and use of the informal transportation sector and for no benefit.
And the U.S. must not forget the Iranian people – they are a key audience (aside from swing voters in the 2020 U.S. elections). They should be the target of news reports on economic progress in North Korea as their economy continues to stagnate so they, and the young especially, can ask why their leaders can't get the world's respect and engagement. To underline what happened, they should be reminded that Trump traveled to Asia – Kim's neighborhood – to meet him.
Kim Jong-Un, Ali Khamenei – they've both done awful things, but now we'll see who's the transformational leader with his eyes on the future.
This article originally appeared on Real Clear Defense. Follow @RCDefense on Twitter.