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This year started on a note of optimism. North and South Korea used the occasion of next month’s Winter Olympics in the south of the divided peninsula to relaunch detente — and perhaps take some of the menace out of US president Donald Trump’s pledge to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if its dictator, Kim Jong Un, presumes to threaten the US with his expanding nuclear weapons arsenal. The rest of the year may make this moment of respite seem rare.
With Mr Trump in the White House, tweeting his muscular histrionics, with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin committed to reasserting Russian power, and with the hyper-concentration of Chinese power under Xi Jinping’s one-man rule, this is an uncertain and disorderly moment in geopolitics — with tinder aplenty ready to catch alight across the globe. But it is this erratic US president’s attitudes towards three nuclear conundrums that will most chill the blood.
On North Korea, there is the assumption that the risks of miscalculation and mass casualties are so huge that, for all his bombast, President Trump would not risk a pre-emptive attack to try to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile facilities. Yet the debate inside his administration keeps returning to the unacceptability of allowing North Korea to develop a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the US mainland. The tentative rapprochement between the Koreas does not deal with this and the military options look potentially catastrophic. Meanwhile, Mr Kim and Mr Trump measure each other’s nuclear buttons. It would be puerile were the stakes not so high.
In the case of Iran, whose nuclear programme was mothballed by the agreement Tehran reached in 2015 with the US, Russia, China and three European powers, Mr Trump keeps threatening to tear up what he calls the “worst deal ever”. The accord trades verifiable curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities to prevent it developing a bomb, in return for lifting international sanctions on the Iranian economy. The US has ratcheted up its own non-nuclear sanctions, aimed especially at Iran’s missile programme and sponsorship of paramilitarism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. These effectively cut the Iranian economy off from international banks and allow hardliners in Iran, who fear foreign investment as a threat to their vested interests, to paint the pragmatic government of President Hassan Rouhani as being party to a swindle.
Mr Trump has offered no practical alternative to the nuclear deal. He renewed it this month for what he said would be the last time unless it is revamped before he has to agree sanctions relief again in 120 days — losing him face with his support base. Since neither Iran nor the other signatories will agree to rewrite it, the US looks set to hand a victory to hardliners such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and unravel a deal they never wanted. That would put war with Iran back on the agenda, with Mr Trump actively inciting Saudi Arabia and Israel to confront Tehran and its proxies, such as Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Mr Trump is confronting Pakistan, a tricky — and nuclear-armed — US ally. Ever since the US-backed jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan, Pakistan has sponsored jihadi groups against India. This dalliance continues even as Pakistan’s army fights its indigenous Taliban and helps the US in Afghanistan.
Enraged, Mr Trump has suspended US aid and Islamabad has suspended intelligence-sharing. At the very least, this is unlikely to improve on the last 17 years of failure in Afghanistan.