- - Thursday, May 9, 2019


The two most obstreperous children in the “family” of nations are at it again, rattling sabers as if in unison. Iran’s furtive provocations in the Persian Gulf are roiling the Middle East and North Korea’s resumption of missile testing is once more putting Asia on edge. America’s responses are distinctly different, because the Islamic state’s hostility is uniformly implacable, and the flame of reconciliation still flickers within the Hermit Kingdom. Where there’s light, there’s hope.

Citing “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” the United States announced Sunday that it had dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with its accompanying strike group and a bomber force, to the Middle East. This is in response to indications that Iran may be preparing to attack either U.S. military forces or oil tankers plying the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s oil supply transits. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” said National Security Adviser John Bolton. “But we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or by regular Iranian forces.”

The bushy-browed mullahs in Iran can’t tolerate so much as a sidelong glance from the West without dissolving in outrage, and President Trump has pushed their most sensitive button. He suspended waivers for nations purchasing Iranian oil as he restored tough economic sanctions a year after withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. Threatening the region’s oil routes could spike oil prices around the world, and the cost to Iran for the pursuit of an Islamic Bomb spiked through the roof.

The deployment of U.S. military forces follows the firing of rockets at Israel from positions in Gaza, where Iran supplies money and weaponry to the ruling Hamas organization. The offensive, plus Tehran’s announcement Wednesday of its intention to restore nuclear enrichment, demonstrates how American economic pressure is pinching Iran. But hell must freeze over before Iran starts the long thaw.

In contrast, North Korea’s inscrutable strong man has seen the distant light of a new day. Chairman Kim Jong-un himself supervised the testing of a short-range ballistic missile and other projectiles, which splashed harmlessly into the Sea of Japan but raised the hackles of its South Korean and Japanese neighbors. Rather than an act of aggression, the test was meant to telegraph the message that talks with the United States over denuclearization have soured dramatically.

President Trump, who routinely meets Iranian animosity in kind, greeted the North’s latest militaristic display with the forbearance of a doting uncle. “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”

The president usually prefers to give adversaries the business rather than the benefit of a doubt. The difference this time may be the investment he has made in winning the confidence of Chairman Kim. Walking and talking together during bilateral summits in Singapore and Hanoi, the odd couple by all accounts have forged a genuine rapport. When offered an open hand of friendship from President Obama some years ago, the mullahs responded with the middle-finger salute. The finger is still in reserve.

The difference between the two rogues is that Iran’s mullahs threaten to strike out at enemies in foreign lands, and Chairman Kim seems intent on merely testing the patience of his counterpart of the same flesh and blood in the south.

Korean denuclearization and reunification is not a problem that can be solved through politics alone. It’s something of a family matter. If Mr. Trump can help both North and South to keep the porch light on, his wish for a productive third summit with Mr. Kim may yet come to pass. The slow march toward peace in Asia, however, is on a path that Iran’s mullahs seem determined not to walk.

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