Moscow and Tehran are both cozying up to North Korea as the White House’s make-or-break policy flounders. While their motivations are different, they’re both trying to seize a strategic international chance.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, welcoming him with a lavish reception in the East Russian city of Vladivostok. The picture was at odds with the clumsy February summit in Vietnam between Kim and US President Donald Trump, who walked out during the crucial negotiations. In Vladivostok, Kim called Trump’s approach “a unilateral attitude in bad faith” and instead described ties with Moscow as “strategic and traditional relations.”
Russia isn’t the only country to make significant overtures to North Korea at a time when Trump’s make-or-break approach to foreign policy appears to be floundering.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced he would “soon” travel to North Korea, without providing further details of the visit. But the timing of the announcement could not have been more strategic.
The Trump administration’s attempts to push through the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with high-stakes summits have lent the North Korean regime a certain legitimacy in international affairs, giving way to bolder approaches from Moscow and Tehran.
Iranian relations with North Korea were first formed in the 1980s during the early days of the Islamic Republic and gained prominence throughout the decade as Pyongyang became an intermediary arms supplier for Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War.
Relations later expanded when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, cutting off North Korea’s supply of subsidized gas. Pyongyang looked to Iran, one of the few oil-rich countries it maintained diplomatic relations with, to meet its energy needs.
Historically, North Korean-Iranian relations were formed out of necessity. Zarif’s announcement of his upcoming visit to North Korea highlights that very bond at a crucial moment for Iran. Oil has long been considered a major lifeline for Iran’s economy, and earlier this week, the White House announced it would end sanctions waivers for Iranian oil.