Trump administration officials deploy a basic lack of understanding and contradictory policies towards Iran and North Korea, despite dealing with a similar problem: nuclear proliferation. We discuss the issue with Phyllis Bennis and Tim Shorrock
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. We seem to be watching a dangerous series of events unfolding before us on the world stage. On the one hand, Trump pulls the United States out of the EU-US-Russian agreement with Iran that’s known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action— the results of which could be leading us to the brink of war with Iran. While 4,000 miles away, there is North Korea which is being courted by Trump. Though it’s unclear what’s being stumbled into here. Most of us are not even sure whether Trump does either. And what is not looked at is the transactional relationship between Iran and North Korea, that they have an arms trade agreement among other economic understandings and has had since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The continued lack of clarity in this very complex world that also involves nuclear weaponry is unsettling at best.
And we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, who is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and author of numerous books, including her most recent book, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. And Tim Shorrock, who is a Washington-based journalist who spent part of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about North and South Korea ever since the late 1970s. He’s been in and out of Korea for many years, meeting and interviewing people across that nation and writes for numerous publications, The Nation and many others. Tim and Phyllis, welcome. Good to have you back with us here on The Real News.
PHYLLIS BENNIS Good to be with you.
MARC STEINER So I mentioned something before, so let me get this out of the way first. In some of the readings, especially in some of the neocon journals and The Cato Institute, some of the people have been writing about the relationship that North Korea and Iran have based on these arms deals and their enmity towards the United States. They met some time ago right after 1989 when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visited North Korea and he thought they should become very close— saying that the US’s enmity towards both countries is a reason for them to stand together, because they threaten progressive nations speaking of those two nations, and should in turn not be afraid of the US, and they have the power to confront America. So let me just start there for a moment. I mean, this is—And then the United States comes in with these multilateral treaties—And yes, Phyllis, I’m going to go to you first because you clearly don’t think that’s very significant.
PHYLLIS BENNIS I think it’s something that happened right after the Iranian Revolution and right after the Iran-Iraq War. I don’t think it’s significant and I think talking about it, making it a major point, and running the footage of it really plays into the neocons’ hands. It’s not an issue today, it’s not relevant, and I think it’s a distraction.
MARC STEINER Tim, do you think—Do you agree? Is it completely irrelevant?
TIM SHORROCK Well, I pretty much agree with that except that, I mean, there’s no doubt that there’s been sales between. North Korea has helped, has sold certain kind of missile technology to Iran. I’ve seen a lot of reports about that to think that that’s credible. But in terms of a relationship or in terms of how this has affected the US relationship, it’s really irrelevant because these are completely different situations. First of all, North Korea has nuclear weapons. As opposed to Iran, which may want to build them in the future, but North Korea has them now, and so it makes it very different. But I say, the history goes back long before. It’s actually 1979 when the revolution happened in Iran and there was also almost a revolution in South Korea. At the time, I remember, getting US documents around South Korea about that time saying we don’t want South Korea to turn into another Iran, Richard Holbrooke saying that because they feared US revolutions in places that were under US hegemony at the time— Iran and South Korea. Iran went its own way and did break away from US hegemony, but South Korea is still part of it. But South Korea has relationships with Iran, as well. So and, you know, Korea’s a divided nation. It’s very different. It’s a very different situation from Iran.
MARC STEINER So when you look at these two situations and how this administration is handling these two countries, let’s talk a bit about why they’re so different and what’s at play here. I mean, in both cases it seems to me that Trump, kind of, bypassed and literally pulled out of the agreement, the multilateral agreement with Iran, bypassing in some ways the multilateral agreements that were taking place with North Korea and with South Korea. So what’s afoot here? Why—What’s the analysis about why this is so different? Other than you see The Cato Institute saying we need to open this up for, that we need to recognize all these countries and we have to have this dialogue going on because they are allies? So, Phyllis, let me start with you.
PHYLLIS BENNIS I don’t think this is about what The Cato Institute has to say. I think that—
MARC STEINER I know, I know. I’m just raising them because I think it’s important to see what they’re thinking.
PHYLLIS BENNIS I understand. What I think is important here is that the US has quite contradictory relationships under way with Iran and North Korea. As Tim just said, North Korea is a nuclear weapon state. The question is, is the US prepared to accept, recognize another nuclear weapons state, which is always a bad thing. It’s not a good thing that there are more nuclear weapon states than there used to be. There used to be five. There used to be one. Then there were five. Now there’s nine and it’s not good. It’s not good to have more nuclear weapon states. That doesn’t make anyone safer. So I think the question more broadly has to be how do we look at the question of disarmament— not simply nonproliferation, which is the US position. The US believes it can have nonproliferation globally without taking any responsibility to implement its own obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, which is sort of seen as the “granddaddy,” if you will, of all the nuclear weapons treaties that requires the United States and the other four acknowledged nuclear weapon countries to move towards full and complete nuclear disarmament. The US laughs at that. As do, we should say, the other nuclear weapons signatories— China, Russia, France, and Britain.
But without that, without moving towards real disarmament on the part of the existing recognized nuclear weapon states, the notion that you’re somehow going to be able to prevent other countries from becoming new nuclear weapon states— whether it’s India and Pakistan, whether it’s Israel, whether it’s North Korea, who are the other existing nuclear weapon states— it simply doesn’t work. So I think if we start with the question of what are the US obligations—It isn’t just what were its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal. Certainly it violated those, but the US has been violating its obligations on multilateral and bilateral nuclear weapons treaties for, I guess, about 30 years now or more. So I think that we have to start from that. Iran is being treated as the enemy du jour, if you will, of the United States. It has to do with relations with Israel. It has to do with building an anti-Iran coalition led by Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. It has to do with rejecting the recognition of Iran’s role as a regional power even without having nuclear weapons.
Whereas the relationship with North Korea—And of course, Tim can speak much more extensively about this. But I think the broad question with North Korea is whether the Bolton position of calling for war against North Korea, as Bolton has called for against both North Korea and Iran, is going to be dominant in the Trump administration. Or, if there’s going to be some recognition of a new way of dealing with North Korea that recognizes that it does have nuclear weapons, and therefore certain kinds of diplomacy are going to have to be applied. Iran does not have nuclear weapons, does not at this time have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, has made clear that it doesn’t want to build a nuclear weapon— although it had earlier on and then gave up that program. So they’re very different relationships— not least because the impact of the Iran nuclear deal, even with the US pulling out of it a year ago, is that Iran up until just a couple of weeks past had been abiding by the terms.
Which means, that it is in a much weaker state relative to nuclear weapons than it was even at the time it was signed. It exported 98% of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges that it was using to create low-enriched uranium, and it poured cement into the core of the plutonium reactor, the only one that it has. So that reality, along with the fact that international inspectors from the United Nations are still in Iran, still having full access to Iran’s nuclear capacity and any place else they want to go—It’s an amazingly intrusive plan. That means that Iran has been abiding by it when it’s the United States that has been violating it.
MARC STEINER Tim?
TIM SHORROCK Let me just start with the fact that Korea is a country that’s still at war. It’s a divided nation. There was a war in 1950 to 1953 that ended in an armistice— never a peace treaty— and the US was the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into Korea shortly after the Korean War in the 1950s. It brought in hundreds of nuclear weapons. Many of them were weapons a soldier could carry on his shoulder. There are weapons, nuclear weapons, at US bases in Korea and also in bases surrounding Korea— in Japan, Okinawa, Guam— as there still are outside of Korea. So, you know, and this war has never ended and there’s been a really big push between the two Koreas in the last year and a half, two years, to try to bring a formal end to the Korean War. A key part of that is ending the hostility between the US and North Korea.
MARC STEINER So, but—Go ahead, Tim. I’m sorry.
TIM SHORROCK You read so much in the mainstream press here about, you know, North Korea building weapons. Why are the [inaudible] a nuclear terrorist state almost because they built weapons, but it’s very rarely asked why did they build this? Why did they see the need to do this? And, you know, it was because they felt and had felt for decades under threat, including nuclear threat, from the United States. The United States has threatened them with weapons at numerous times. So this is a long-term process to resolve this conflict. And as far as I know, I think Trump, the one decent thing he’s done is to press this peace process with North Korea as it calls itself DPRK. This is something that’s very much supported by the people and government now of South Korea and I think, you know, obviously that all makes it very different. But in terms of—To me, the Bolton line has been applied obviously to Iran and Bolton has really influenced the policy in North Korea too.
The last talks between the US and the DPRK fell apart in Hanoi because, you know, Trump went in there—In the weeks before, it sounded like his main negotiator was ready for some kind of step-by step process where the US might drop sanctions in return for some moves by North Korea to dismantle part of its nuclear facilities there, uranium enrichment facilities and so on. It looked like that might happen, but what happened was basically Trump came in with Bolton’s line of “you have to surrender first before we’ll do anything, before we’ll make any moves.” And that didn’t work. North Korea, actually, at those talks had offered to shut down a very large nuclear facility that makes their main source of plutonium as well as uranium enrichment plant. It’s a main nuclear weapons facility. There are others but they offered to shut this one down in return for the ending of some sanctions that were imposed after 2016 by the UN.
And, you know, basically Trump rejected that and said we want you to give up everything, including all your other weapons as well, and that just didn’t work. It just so happens that because of events in the last week or so where Trump went there and at the advice of South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un again, and actually walked into North Korea. That was, you know, quite a step literally and figuratively for him to do that. No president has ever visited North Korea, even a few steps.
MARC STEINER Even a step. Right.
TIM SHORROCK Well it’s a very important move, so it’s like these are different situations. Right-wingers, neocons are trying to link North Korea and Iran into this big vast, kind of, conspiracy against America and American interests, and it just is kind of ridiculous.
MARC STEINER One of the reasons I wanted to do this, have this conversation, was because A—What you two have just said earlier about the misconception that’s being put out there by a lot of the establishment, especially the more conservative establishment, about the relationship between Iran and North Korea, which I think is important to, kind of, understand and blow up in a figurative sense, obviously. But also, this speaks to— and I’m going to conclude here— speaks to Trump’s foreign policies that doesn’t seem to really have any substance or basis. I mean, it seems that every time he moves, is stumbling into something with these two countries that can be very dangerous. And people don’t see the connection but don’t really get it, which is why I think it’s important to, kind of, see these in that perspective. Phyllis?
PHYLLIS BENNIS I think that it is a very dangerous moment, particularly with Iran. I think that the threat of war is very serious not necessarily because of a new or increased threat that the US is going to declare war against Iran and openly attack, but right now, the over-militarization of the incredibly crowded Strait of Hormuz, among other things— which is incredibly crowded with not only ships carrying oil, carrying natural gas. 40% of the world’s resources like that— oil and natural gas in particular— goes through the Strait of Hormuz at any given time and it’s completely filled with military ships. The US of course recently sent an aircraft carrier group. That means 6,500 sailors, 70 planes— it’s a floating arsenal— along with a set of other ships, other destroyers. The Iranians have a corps of small boats that are armed, that are zipping around in the Strait.
And it’s a very dangerous moment because it’s not a situation like, for example, in Syria where the US and Russia have a military-to-military hotline where when one side is planning to attack Syrians, they essentially call the other and say look, we’re about to kill a bunch of Syrians but we don’t want to kill your guys. The US will say, we don’t care about killing Syrians, but we don’t want to kill Russians. The Russians will say essentially the same thing— we don’t care about killing Syrians, but we don’t want to kill Americans; get your people out of there. And they do. The US and Iran do not have anything like that. They don’t have any kind of capacity for a quick response. So if—Imagine one night a flare goes off from some ship and some young sailor, an Iranian sailor or a US sailor on his own ship or her own ship, suddenly thinks, oh my God. This is an attack. We’re under attack. I have to respond, and fires back.
The US and Iran have no way of contacting each other to say, wait a minute. Hold back. This was a mistake. This is not an act of war. The US of course is carrying out acts of war already. The sanctions that it is imposing, which many believe to be an act of war under the UN Charter, is having a devastating, crippling impact on the Iranian economy— with particularly the last round, the last two rounds of sanctions that included oil sanctions that prohibit the sales of oil as the US has said, “from Iran anywhere in the world.” So other than China, which is continuing to buy some small amounts of Iranian oil, Iran’s exports have dropped from somewhere between one and two million barrels a day, to less than 300,000 barrels a day. And that’s having an enormous impact on the ability of Iranians to get access to crucial medicines. There’s a huge shortage of drugs for diabetes, among other things. Food is increasingly too expensive for people to buy anything with decent protein or milk. So there is a dramatic impact underway, which looks to Iranian citizens as acts of war that the US is carrying out, as well as acknowledged efforts at cyberwarfare.
So even though the US has pulled back from its one almost direct attack against Iran in the last couple of weeks, there’s no question that it is launching these major attacks on the Iranian economy, on Iran’s cyber capacity, and it’s a very, very dangerous moment where war could explode. Israel also has threatened in the past to go to war against Iran assuming that the US would come to its defense in any situation like that. There have not been those kinds of remarks in recent months from Netanyahu, but Netanyahu of course is facing an even graver political challenge than Trump himself is, in terms of the likelihood of four separate indictments that are about to come down, and he is urging any kind of distraction from that. So this could be a very dangerous moment.
MARC STEINER And the danger is not quite severe on the other side. Though folks once thought so in North Korea, Tim, as we conclude.
TIM SHORROCK Well, that’s true. I mean, I agree with everything Phyllis has just said. I mean, Iran is a place where, you know, many of us are concerned about the possibility of the US launching a war, some kind of military attack. In North Korea, the situation was pretty dangerous in 2017 and 2018. You know, people might remember Trump’s words, you know, “fire and fury” and basically threatening them with nuclear war at the UN. And his Security Adviser at the time, McMaster, was really pushing for strikes on North Korea, which could have been absolutely devastating, and devastating for the whole peninsula. A lot of people in the Pentagon were not in favor of this in any way, and I think there was actually military opposition inside the US military establishment against any kind of action there. I think you see some of the same reluctance here with Iran, but I think the imperatives are much different in the two places. This is where I see, you know, some generals in the US might say, yeah, we might be able to do something against Iran. Whereas, South Korea you have susceptible to attacks, conventional attacks, from the North if there was any kind of war.
And so, it’s really a bad situation as apt in the danger of war in North Korea. And I think that’s, I have to say, that’s partly to this administration’s credit. I mean, Trump did back away from McMaster and Bolton’s more militant policies toward North Korea, and for whatever reason, you know, he’s done that. And I think that we need to applaud any move like that toward peace, but what he is doing and the threats he’s made personally in his speeches and tweets and talks he gives to his own people, his core base, that he gives at these rallies—It’s very, it’s a really dangerous situation. And so, I think one mitigating factor, I think, ironically is the fact that some of Iran’s largest markets for its own oil were both Japan and South Korea. South Korea actually has had very good relations with Iran because they buy a lot of oil from them. So I think there’s factors from other countries that may limit the US desire to make a war on Iran, but, you know, it’s something that’s very concerning.
MARC STEINER Well, Phyllis Bennis and Tim Shorrock, I want to thank you both so much. Your analysis and, kind of, parsing through these complexities has been really important for our viewers. And I appreciate your time and look forward to talking to you both again very soon.
PHYLLIS BENNIS Thank you.
TIM SHORROCK Thank you.
MARC STEINER As we see where Trump may stumble into next. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.