With North Korea, President Donald Trump turns on the charm. But with Iran, he cranks up the pressure with economic sanctions and a stronger military presence in the Persian Gulf.
He warned its leaders yesterday they are "playing with fire" after it was confirmed Iran had increased production of low-enriched uranium in excess of limits in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Nuclear weapons are at the heart of the difficult US relations with both Pyongyang and Tehran. But it's in North Korea where Trump has more leeway — and perhaps a greater chance of striking a deal.
Kim Jong Un has seemed as willing to meet with Trump as the US president has been to shake hands for the cameras with him. The North Korean leader jumped at the chance to meet Trump at the Demilitarised Zone between the Koreas last weekend.
Trump has made repeated overtures to Iranian leaders, too, but without the same results.
"I think Trump would be equally on a charm offensive with the Iranians if he had a dance partner," said Mark Dubowitz, an Iran nuclear deal skeptic with the Foundation for defence of Democracies.
Also, Israel, which views Iran as its archenemy, is pressuring Trump to take a hardline approach to Tehran, which has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. There is no big anti-North Korea lobby in the United States pressuring the White House to shun Kim's repressive government.
Yesterday, Iran announced it has a stockpile of more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium in violation of the 2015 deal. The US is partly to blame because it failed to renew waivers that allowed Iran to swap its excess to other countries. But officials say the administration is less concerned about yesterday's breach than further violations that could reduce the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear weapon. The deal aimed to keep that "breakout time" at one year.
Iran's deputy foreign minister has warned the White House that it's naive to think Iran will wilt under pressure, or that the Iranian people will revolt and throw out its government.
As for North Korea, administration officials caution that Trump's charm offensive with Kim does not foreshadow a softening of its insistence that his country must not have nuclear weapons. The New York Times reported that the administration might agree to a nuclear freeze as a first step toward denuclearisation.
Stephen Biegun, US special envoy to North Korea, said the report was "far from accurate".
"What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate. No one on our team who knows anything would speak right now anyway," he said in a statement.
Michael McFaul, a US ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, says complete and verifiable denuclearisation may not be the goal in Iran or North Korea.
"In Iran, it may be that the real objective is regime change, including the option of US military action," he says. "In North Korea, it could be that the goal is not complete denuclearisation, but an outcome that allows Kim to maintain part of his nuclear arsenal while perhaps dismantling his intercontinental ballistic missile programme to reduce the direct threat to US national security. This lesser goal could help to explain why Trump is so oddly accommodating toward North Korea."
Iran 'playing with fire'
Iran has broken the limit set on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, international inspectors and Tehran said yesterday, marking its first major departure from the agreement a year after the US withdrew from the accord.
The announcement by Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and later confirmation by the UN nuclear watchdog puts new pressure on European nations trying to save the deal amid US President Donald Trump's maximalist campaign targeting Tehran. Iran separately threatened to raise its uranium enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe fails to offer it a new deal.
The European Union urged Iran to reverse course and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the action "a significant step toward making a nuclear weapon".
At the White House, Trump told reporters Iran was "playing with fire," and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the international community to require Iran to suspend enrichment, even at levels allowed under the nuclear deal.