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Trump’s Unrealistic Ultimatums for Iran and North Korea

President Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com, European External Action Service/Flickr

Robert Litwak urges the Trump administration to give up on its maximalist demands for Iran and North Korea and settle for more limited, transactional agreements:

Diplomacy is an optimizing, not a maximizing, function. Neither North Korea nor Iran will accept a transformational U.S. negotiating position that they regard as tantamount to regime suicide. Transactional diplomacy offers a plausible pathway for constraining, not eliminating, these states’ threatening capabilities. Moreover, a discrete focus based on countering behavior that violates established international norm will garner broader international support to amplify U.S. pressure on the Pyongyang and Tehran regimes. In short, transactional diplomacy makes the best of a bad situation. The open question is whether the current impasse will lead the Trump administration to navigate this transition from the transformational to the transactional.

Litwak is right about what the administration should do, but we have seen no signs that they understand that they need to give up on their unrealistic goals. Even though “maximum pressure” has failed to extract any significant concessions from either government, the administration still insists on North Korean disarmament that won’t happen and repeats the 12 preposterous demands that Iran will never accept. On Iran, the administration has moved beyond making unreasonable demands and has been promoting outright lies that Iran still harbors “nuclear ambitions.” In the other case, the U.S. and North Korea have held talks, but both sides continue to talk past one another with their competing and mutually exclusive definitions of key terms. The administration’s approach to both states has amounted to issuing ultimatums that require the other side to surrender in exchange for little or nothing up front, and then they wonder why they haven’t made more progress.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the demands that the U.S. is making are so extreme and far-reaching that they are designed to be rejected in order to give our hard-liners a pretext for escalation. If regime change is what administration officials truly seek (and there is no question that it is in the case of Iran), they could be making impossible demands so that they can declare diplomacy a dead end and provide them with an excuse for military action that some of them have been craving for years. If they can’t get the desired “transformation” through negotiations (and they can’t), they are more likely to abandon diplomacy before they give up on the transformational goals they have set. The source of the trouble is that the president, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Advisor despise making the compromises that any successful diplomatic engagement requires, and that means that they won’t switch to transactional dealings with these states.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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