Fiasco in Hanoi: Implications for the Middle East

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | February 27 - March 6, 2019

Khamenei, Kim Jong-un and Trump
Photos:; Dan Scavino Jr./ Assistant to @POTUS


The summit in Vietnam’s capital between President Trump and Chairman Kim ended in a resounding failure. The two leaders, who travelled thousands of kilometers for the meeting did not even bother to complete the summit’s program as they quickly realized that the gaps between them are too wide and that further talks are futile at this point.


What led to the failure in Hanoi?

Once again, President Trump ignored both the assessments of the intelligence community and his advisors’ position that Kim will not agree to a full nuclear disarmament because the nuclear program is considered the ultimate guarantee for his regime’s survivability. Trump was under the impression that his personality, negotiation skills, and personal relations with Kim will bear an influence upon the latter. On the other hand, Kim assessed, probably also against the professional judgement of his advisors, that he would be able to exploit Trump’s eagerness to reach a deal and to prove the world wrong.


In Hanoi, both leaders encountered reality - the gap was wide and unbridgeable:


  • Under the apparent influence of the cues from Trump and his envoy, Stephen Biegun, who signaled willingness for partial relaxation of sanctions in return for meaningful concessions, Kim offered to close down only the old nuclear complex in Yongbyon in return for the most significant economic sanctions on North Korea, imposed since 2016.
  • Contrarily, Trump demanded substantial disarming, including additional facilities for uranium enrichment and missile systems, but as far as one can tell, refrained from demanding complete and verifiable disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and missiles stockpiles.


Implications for the Middle East

The Ayatollahs in Teheran are expected to conclude from the summit’s failure that when they realize their ambitions and acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. will not have the sufficient wherewithal and power to force Iran to disband and disarm its nuclear program.


Furthermore, even before the summit, the Iranian regime could have concluded that when a state acquires nuclear weapons and is determined not to relinquish them, the world is willing to listen and consider its positions even as it brutally oppresses its own people and conducts a menacing and malign foreign policy. Trump’s statements regarding his strong and warm personal relations with the dictator from Pyongyang – even after the summit – only served to reinforce an impression of American weakness.


Trump not only failed to press North Korea to commit to complete and irreversible denuclearization, after the summit ended, he was unwilling to declare that this was the ultimate goal of the negotiations. Consequently, Iran can draw two important and troubling lessons that are expected to strengthen its recalcitrance in any future international negotiation:


  • First, America’s maximum pressure policy lacks resilient and vulnerable to offers of phased progress – one step at a time – in return for partial sanctions relief.
  • Second, as an upshot, Secretary Pompeo's 12 demands, including those regarding the nuclear file, are on the table. This might encourage Iran to violate the JCPOA, assuming such a move could provide effective and powerful leverage vis-à-vis Washington. This lesson could be reinforced as Trump continues negotiations, parallel to North Korea increasing its missiles and nuclear materials’ stockpiles using its expanding arsenals as leverage to pressure America.

Beyond the Iranian issue, the Hanoi summit is likely to resonate negatively across the Middle East, at least from the perspectives of Israel and the Arab moderate camp.


Completely absent from the US-North Korean exchange in Hanoi was the threat of proliferation. Proliferation is a long-standing North Korean strategy and an important source of revenue for Pyongyang. For years, North Korea has been transferring nuclear and missile technologies, knowhow, and systems to the Middle East. North Korea was instrumental in Iran’s missile program, especially at its early phases. Pyongyang built a military nuclear facility in Syria which, luckily, was exposed and destroyed at the last minute before becoming operational.


If the U.S. fails to include in its negotiation with North Korea effective mechanisms to deter and prevent proliferation, Kim might interpret this as a carte blanche to continue transferring capabilities to the Middle East that place Israel under direct threat. Pyongyang might also try to develop in the region, some of the capabilities it will allegedly renounce.


From a broader perspective, attempts to appease North Korea despite its intransigence – by canceling the large-scale joint exercises with South Korea, for instance – is liable to undermine the perceived robustness of American guarantees to regional security in Asia and the Middle East.


This dynamic could be particularly destructive to America’s posture in the Middle East, where American resolve is already being questioned following the decisions to exit Syria and to drawdown forces in Afghanistan. Thus, encouraging radical players like Iran, Turkey, and Russia to test American resolve across the region, in the Gulf, the Red Sea, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.


Considering Pyongyang’s track record, and in order to avoid such adverse outcomes and preserve American credibility, the U.S. must not compromise on its precondition of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, prior to any U.S. or international concessions. Otherwise, America’s allies in both Asia and the Middle East might end up paying the strategic bill for the negotiations with Pyongyang.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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