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Council On Foreign Relations President Discusses U.S. Attitudes On Iran, North Korea


All right, how to explain the two very different approaches the U.S. is taking towards two rising nuclear powers? There is the tough talk towards Iran, which does not yet have a nuclear weapon. Then, there's North Korea, which does have nuclear weapons. Yesterday, when President Trump stepped across the border onto North Korean soil, he called it, quote, "a great honor," and called his relationship with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, a great friendship.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins me now. Hey there.

RICHARD HAASS: Good to be with you.

KELLY: When you look at Iran and North Korea, do you see a throughline here, an overarching U.S. strategy for dealing with these two countries that, from the U.S. point of view, would - the U.S. would prefer they did not have nuclear weapons?

HAASS: I actually do see some consistencies. The rhetoric towards Iran now is extraordinarily hot, and two years ago, so, too, was the rhetoric towards North Korea. So one possibility is the president likes to talk tough to then tee up something diplomatic. So I wouldn't rule that out.

There may also, though, be some differences. He obviously was impressed along the way that a war with North Korea would be something horrific. This may be misplaced, but I don't believe he necessarily has the same concern about Iran. So he may be willing to press it a little bit harder.

KELLY: Right. I mean, there is the obvious factor that I mentioned that if you go to war with North Korea, you're going to war against a nuclear-armed state, the same not being true with Iran.

HAASS: There is that. With North Korea, the president, up to now, has articulated what I think is the totally unrealistic goal of denuclearization. The question is whether he is prepared to settle for less. And that brings us again to the Iran situation. Is this administration prepared to enter into negotiations that would come up with some kind of a limited agreement, perhaps extending the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal? And in both cases, the nature of the deal would be we will reduce some of the sanctions in place if you give us some, although not necessarily all, of what we want in the nuclear domain.

KELLY: You mentioned the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which, of course, was negotiated by the Obama administration.

HAASS: (Laughter).

KELLY: And I have wondered, is that part of what is at play here - that President Trump is not unhappy about pulling out of a deal brokered by the Obama administration, maybe happy to dismantle the foreign policy achievements of his predecessor?

HAASS: Well, I'm shocked that you should suggest that, but it's obviously quite possible. There is a little bit of a anything but Obama, or we can't offer continuity. Indeed, there's a certain irony here that whatever the limitations of the Iran nuclear deal, it did keep Iran, for the immediate future, at zero nuclear weapons and, basically, very little of what you would need to build one.

North Korea is just the opposite. They have dozens of nuclear weapons. So there is a certain oddity that the administration would seem more comfortable with a significant North Korean nuclear capability than it would with an Iran that had no capability.

KELLY: So let's just game this out in terms of how all this might be playing through the minds of the leaders of North Korea and Iran. If you are sitting in Tehran and you were watching this weekend's meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, what message would you take away? We just heard there in Geoff Brumfiel's piece one analyst saying, hey, it looks like Kim Jong Un's getting the red-carpet treatment. He's getting love letters. Maybe it pays to be a nuclear weapon state.

HAASS: I expect there are some in Tehran who are reacting exactly the way you suggest. The problem is Iran does not have the equivalent of a China in its corner in the same way that North Korea does.

KELLY: It doesn't have a powerful ally looking out for its interests.

HAASS: Exactly. And it doesn't also threaten quite the same way, though one could argue otherwise, the kind of threat that North Korea poses not just to South Korea and Japan, but to the 28,500 American troops that are in South Korea. So it's not clear that Iran has quite the threat, which gives you an element of pushback, that North Korea has.

KELLY: All right, what about if you are in North Korea? What lesson would you take from President Trump's rhetoric against Iran and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal?

HAASS: Well, it obviously gives you some pause. It's not inconceivable that North Korea would want to make sure that any deal was approved by Congress. This administration has embraced unpredictability when it comes to its foes. But from the perspective of its foes, that is not necessarily a good thing. So they would want to be sure that what the administration committed to the Congress was behind because, again, if this president were not to be reelected, they would want the confidence that whatever was agreed to would last well into 2021.

KELLY: Confidence that the U.S. would keep its word with whatever was negotiated going forward.

HAASS: Exactly right.

KELLY: Richard Haass - he is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy And The Crisis Of The Old Order." Richard Haass, thank you.

HAASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.