A Tale of Two Outliers: Comparing Options on Iran and North Korea

by Usha Sahay

As Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure and North Korea issues increasingly hostile threats, analysts continue to expend much energy trying to figure out what military capabilities the two main “nuclear outliers” have. One is certain: Iran and North Korea have an outsized ability to influence debates about US defense policy. In March, the US decided to expand its missile defenses in Alaska to counter a potential North Korean ballistic missile attack. The threat from Iran has similarly driven US missile defense planning, arms sales and other policy decisions. North Korea and Iran have also become highly politicized components of our national security discourse. For instance, Republican Senators Bob Corker and Jim Inhofe recently cited the countries as reasons to oppose President Obama’s desire to reduce US and Russian nuclear stockpiles and instead increase funding for modernizing our nuclear arsenal.

Often mentioned in a single breath, the threats from Tehran and Pyongyang are important shapers of national security decisions in Washington. So it’s worth asking: do Iran and North Korea pose the same type of danger? Is one of more concern than the other? And how should the US deal with these countries, which pose the most acute challenges to the global nonproliferation regime?

Iran and North Korea share some important characteristics: both are ruled by authoritarian regimes, both have issued worrisome threats to neighbors that are US allies and both have remained intransigent despite harsh international condemnation and strict sanctions.

Still, from a purely capabilities-based standpoint, the countries shouldn’t technically be grouped in the same category for one very obvious reason: North Korea has a nuclear arsenal and Iran does not.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and it has enough plutonium for 4-8 nuclear weapons. Iran, for its part, may be interested in something more than peaceful nuclear energy, but it has refrained from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels and from acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Moreover, while neither nation can hit the US with inter-continental ballistic missiles, North Korea’s missiles can reach farther than Iran’s (in fact, there’s some evidence that Iran has had to pause its ballistic missile program due to difficulties imposed by economic sanctions).

In terms of US policy options, North Korea’s nuclear weapons constrain our actions in a way that isn’t applicable with Iran. While many have given serious consideration to a military strike on Iran, few consider attacking North Korea a good idea because of its nuclear weapons and the significant conventional military threat it poses to South Korea. Taking out an existing nuclear arsenal is a tall order, and in North Korea’s case, a strike would be incredibly difficult since we couldn’t even be sure where our targets were.

In this regard, the North Korean and Iranian cases are similar. Iran doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal, but a military strike on the country would be a disaster. Iran would surely retaliate against Israeli and US targets. The confrontation could escalate into a destabilizing regional war in the already volatile Middle East — and all this without any guarantee that Iran couldn’t simply rebuild its nuclear facilities a few years later. Worst of all, premature military action would breed resentment and insecurity in Iran, which would probably compel its government to embark on a full-scale nuclear weapons program — a decision that has not yet been made.

This brings us to the crucial difference between Iran and North Korea: with Iran, the United States has a unique opportunity to solve the problem before it becomes a greater crisis. Iran still hasn’t committed to going nuclear, which offers a chance to prevent it from following North Korea’s path. The reason for cautious optimism is that, unlike the North Korean “hermit kingdom”, Iran is integrated into the global economy and dependent on international trade. So, economic sanctions should give us far more leverage with Iran than they have with North Korea. (Sanctions expert Etel Solingen makes a distinction between “inward facing” and “outward facing” governments, arguing that the latter are more interested in ties with the international community and therefore more likely to be swayed by sanctions. In many ways, Iran is inward-facing, but certainly much less so than North Korea).

Relatedly, although Iran is far from a liberal democracy, its system is more open than North Korea’s and its leaders are much more accountable to the public. Iran analyst Alireza Nader recently suggested that the government in Tehran is more responsive to economic pressure, pointing out that “North Korea has suffered from sanctions, but its regime does not care about its population the way the Islamic Republic has to consider its population.”

All of this means that the US can still use its considerable diplomatic leverage to avoid being forced to choose between a military conflict and living with an Iran with expanded nuclear capabilities.

To be sure, dissuading Iran from its nuclear ambitions won’t be easy. Thus far, negotiations have yielded little except frustration. But this isn’t because Iran is a lost cause with which we’ve run out of options. Rather, talks have largely foundered because both sides have yet to commit to the flexibility and trust-building needed to broker an agreement. With Iran, more so than with North Korea, the foundation is in place to reach a compromise — all that’s needed is the political will to get there.

North Korea and Iran pose tough foreign policy challenges, and in both cases, the available options are few and far from ideal. But with Iran, continued negotiations offer an opportunity to stop a still-nascent nuclear program and prevent a nuclear breakout that would destabilize the region and threaten the credibility of the global nonproliferation regime. As we look for ways to deal with two difficult “outlier” states, that’s one opportunity we shouldn’t fail to seize.

Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam in September 2012. [AFP]

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Usha Sahay

Usha Sahay is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C, where her work focuses on U.S. nuclear policy, foreign policy issues in Congress, and global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. She was a 2012 recipient of the Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellowship, which is awarded to college graduates with an interest in nuclear policy and other peace and security issues. Usha holds a dual bachelor’s degree in history and international politics from Columbia University.