China, Iran, and North Korea Walk Into a Bar

So let’s get a little update on a few situations that we’ve discussed over the last year. And shall we synthesize them into a cohesive portrait of the geopolitical sandbox that is our international system? Why not.

You recall that we’re in the middle of a trade conflict with China, yes? How in December, Trump said “You have 90 days to negotiate a deal with me or else” and then those 90 days came and went, and then there was an extension, and they were getting so close to a deal? And then at the beginning of the week, Trump was like, “Okay, sign a deal by Friday or else I’ll impose more tariffs”? Well, here we are on Friday, and there’s no deal.

USTR Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He

USTR Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He

No biggie! They’re adults, right? They can figure it out, it just takes time.

But time is in short supply, because China isn’t the only issue on the table, and that 2020 election cycle is getting awfully under way.

Remember the Iran nuclear deal? The JCPOA? How I said almost literally a year ago that after the US pulled out, it would be harder to ramp up pressure on Iran and our allies, and might lead to tension and conflict? That the US might be pressured to pursue riskier forms of pressure? That Iran was likely to pursue nuclear arms more fervently than before?

On Monday, Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization (against the advice of many, given the backlash it might incite). The IRGC is a part of the Iranian government — a branch of the armed forces entrusted with the existential protection of the Islamic Republic, from both external and internal threats. This marks the first time the US has designated any portion of a foreign government as a terrorist organization — a legal distinction that entails heavy sanctions and travel bans on associated individuals.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

In return, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Wednesday that Iran would walk back from the 2015 nuclear deal, and (slowly) begin enriching uranium at levels beyond the stipulated limits, originally intended to prevent Iran’s successful creation of a nuclear weapon — unless the US backed off and the Europeans started buying their oil and lending them money. If the Europeans do, they’d be subject to US sanctions by proxy of trading with Iran. Are they likely to stick by our side after two years of being berated over NATO contributions and trade?

Meanwhile, the US ordered four B-52 bombers and a damn carrier group (aircraft carrier and its squad of hypemen) to the Persian Gulf, turning up on Iran’s doorstep just in time for National Security Advisor John Fucking Bolton to threaten them.

And why would Trump designate them as such now? One theory is to help Trump’s buddy Benjamin Netanyahu win yet another term of the Israeli presidency (his fifth) in a hotly contested election on Tuesday that was seen by many as a potential inflection point, with Netanyahu now openly claiming sovereignty over unrecognized territory and facing corruption charges.

A Netanyahu campaign billboard in Jerusalem

A Netanyahu campaign billboard in Jerusalem

All this on top of the most violent conflict between Israel and Hamas since they literally went to war in 2014, with four Israelis and 27 Palestinians dead after rockets and air strikes marked the arrival of Israel’s independence day and the beginning of Ramadan.

Then there are the two US warships tooling around the South China Sea on relatively routine “freedom of navigation” operations, meant to remind China that we can do whatever we want in international waters, prompting the usual “hey don’t do that” admonition from China.

Finally, remember how I said that the US-NK denuclearization deal wasn’t a deal at all and would result in renewed tension in the future? This week, the US seized a North Korean ship that had been transporting North Korean coal in contravention of international sanctions, the first time the US has ever actually interdicted a North Korean ship, in order to punish Kim Jong-un for testing nuclear weapons again.

Kimg Jong-un, searching for coherence in American foreign policy

Kimg Jong-un, searching for coherence in American foreign policy

None of these issues are themselves likely to send us into World War III. But with so much on the table, and so much at once, it only takes one mistake. Air strikes in Iran cause civilian casualties. Faulty navigation systems cause a skirmish in the South China Sea. Kim Jong-un takes offense at being stymied.

I’ve been writing about these things for literally years now, and they move so slowly that it’s hard to see sometimes, but these actions and events have consequences that last months and years and decades, so if it seems like I’m being apocalyptic, wait a few years to make that call. You just gotta keep your eye on all the balls. #fpf