Why the Risk of War is Higher with Iran than North Korea

by Shireen Hunter

There is a fear that the United States might become embroiled in war in 2018 with Iran, North Korea, or possibly both.

In view of the inflammatory rhetoric directed by the United States and North Korea toward one another over the past several months, it would appear at first glance that the risk of war with North Korea is higher. The risk appears still higher because North Korea poses a considerable security risk to America’s allies in the Pacific region, especially Japan and South Korea.

However, barring some new and unexpected developments in the Korean Peninsula, the likelihood of a full-scale war between the U.S. and North Korea is less than the chance of a U.S. military intervention against Iran.

There are several reasons why this is so. First, American regional allies, notably South Korea and Japan, are more vulnerable to North Korean attacks. In particular, South Korea could suffer unbearable human and material damage in case of war. Therefore, most likely it would try to dissuade America from going to war and instead seek a negotiated settlement to the dispute. Second, the United States must consider the risk that countries like China might become involved in the conflict. Third, the U.S. must calculate the risk of possible use of a nuclear device against American territory by North Korea. In other words, North Korea’s much inferior nuclear capability nevertheless exerts a deterrent effect on American policy.

But, perhaps most importantly, there is no domestic pressure in the United States for America to rush to war against North Korea.

The situation vis-à-vis Iran is quite different. Despite talk of Iran’s military power, especially its ballistic missiles, the fact is that Iran is militarily weak. In particular, Iran lacks an adequate air force and air defense system. A week-long American bombing campaign would inflict considerable damage on Iran’s military and economic infrastructure.

More to the point Iran, unlike North Korea, does not have a direct retaliatory power against America. Iran’s missiles and its much talked about speed boats are no much for American power at sea or in the air. And under the Joint Comprehensive program of Action (JCPOA), Iran has forgone the option of developing a nuclear device. A rudimentary nuclear device might have increased Iran’s vulnerability to a preemptive U.S. attack. But it might also have given American decision-makers pause.

What makes Iran’s situation different—and the risk of war higher—is the existence of both a regional and a domestic U.S. lobby in favor of an American attack on Iran.

Domestically, American hawks as well as the ardent supporters of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have long advocated an American attack on Iran. Many had expected that after Iraq, Tehran would be the next target. Some were disappointed that Iran was not attacked first.

For this group, a change in Iran’s behavior or even a regime change is not sufficient. They want to see Iran’s capability to be a military and economic power in the region destroyed. With Iraq and Syria already out of the way, and with Egypt having become toothless, Iran is the only remaining Middle Eastern power that must be brought to its knees. It is the rebellious satrapy that should be tamed. As long as it has the rudiments of power, it cannot be trusted to behave.

Disposing of Iran at a time when Arab leaders appear to be willing to forgo the Palestinian cause altogether would hasten the settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, or so they think, because Iran is the only state willing to sacrifice its own national interests for the cause of liberating Palestine. At least, Iranian hardliners’ rhetoric seem to indicate such willingness.

These sentiments are also shared by some Arab states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, to name but a few. They have been urging an American attack on Iran for a long time. Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah’s request that the United States should “cut off the head of the snake,” i.e. Iran, is one example. More to the point, the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently related how Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pressuring the United States to bomb Iran while America was trying to reach a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. They have not changed their minds. If anything, they are even more eager now for such an operation.

The political winds in Washington also seem to be blowing in a similar direction. Increasingly hostile rhetoric about Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and comments made by several high-ranking Trump administration officials, such as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, seem to indicate that US might be leaning towards intervention. Making matters worse for Iran is the fact it has no great power patron willing to come to its defense. Neither Russia nor China will risk their own interests to defend Iran.

This may not come to pass, and Iran and the U.S. might just continue on their current no war no peace trajectory. But authorities in Tehran would be advised to take the risks seriously.

There has been an unfortunate tendency among Iran’s hardliners to dismiss threats of an attack by America. The fact that, so far, they have escaped such an attack has encouraged them in this attitude.

Those hardliners have made anti-Americanism the cornerstone of their ideology and the basis of their power and legitimacy, and thus have remained unwilling to engage in serious dialogue with America. They have developed an ostrich-like mind set and attitude that could prove disastrous for Iran.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. It is highly improbable that Russia, Turkey or even China would tolerate a new US military intervention in the region.

    Especially after the war in Syria, which has forged a close military and political relationship between Moscow and Teheran.

  2. Thanks for the post , with all due respect , countless baseless assumptions and inaccuracies , just some few :

    First , Iran can react , and would react , in several ways ( substantially I mean ) just to mention , that its totally faithful proxy in Lebanon ( The Hezbollah ) would simply be activated to action and reaction , so to launch , dozens of thousands of rockets into Israel . One can’t imagine , the retaliation of the Israeli state , and the mess that would be produced in Syria and Lebanon ( at least solely there ) .

    Second , China and Iran , are more to some extent allies ( military allies ) . China may be really pissed off , if such military attack , takes place . Don’t knock it down !!

    Third , you know , you write of a military attack of US on Iran , but , what for ?? What would be the direct cause according to you ?? The nuclear program ( while the JCPOA , yet stands ) and if nuclear program , or even the long range missiles bases , then , those would be apparently the targets , so , why other military let alone civil infrastructures ?? That is not that simple !!

    References :

    ” The times of Israel ”

    Iranian commander: 100,000 missiles ready to ‘annihilate’ Israel

    And :

    ” DFI ”

    ” Commander: Iranian, Chinese Navies Readying to Conduct Joint Naval Drills Farsnews ”

  3. “There is a fear that the United States might become embroiled in war in 2018 with Iran, North Korea, or possibly both.”
    This statement smacks of the idea that wars are inevitable, they just happen, the US just becomes embroiled, and before anybody can do anything about it we are at war with evil forces.
    That sense of inevitability is wrong. The US elects wars and starts them, is the reality. The false idea that nothing can be done about sustaining peace thoroughly imbues the US military officer corps, and currently these are the people conducting US foreign policy.
    Regarding the author’s premise that North Korea is more dangerous when attacked than Iran, it’s wrong. Iran is not militarily weak and has the power to destroy US bases with 40,000 troops in the Gulf area, Israeli cities, and other allied bases in the area. Iran doesn’t need an air force to wreak destruction, it has missiles which are the new reality in warfare everywhere. And it has Hezbollah, as El Roam says.
    Both North Korea and Iran are not the weak countries that the US has been attacking, they are both extremely dangerous. The US should seek peace not war with both countries. Specifically, Iran is not a country to “disposed” of. The US has tried that with its Iraq ally at the time, and Persians don’t surrender especially to a country which has just been defeated (in Syria).

  4. @ “Iran’s missiles and its much talked about speed boats are no much for American power at sea or in the air.”

    Prof. Hunter blinks past the asymmetric aspect of those missiles and speed boats. Yes, those weapons are negligible in a head-to-head battle with the U.S. military. But Iran has the undeniable power to close the Straits of Hormuz with its missiles dug into the mountains to the north, its huge fleet of mine-laying speed boats, and its large fleet of mine-laying mini-submarines. 20 per cent of the world’s oil is shipped through those Straits, including the oil produced by the major Gulf Coast states. Halting that flow would bring the Western economy to its knees without any radioactive fallout. Moreover, U.S. Navy tests a few years ago of its mine-sweeping capabilities resulted in only three of 20 mines being recovered.

    The danger in thought leaders pooh-poohing such factors is that their opinions may be accepted as fact by those with the power to launch wars. Thus the moral issue is raised.

  5. Undermining Iran missiles power will be a total disaster. They have already exported some of these expertise to their regional proxies. One can see them falling down on Israel and Saudi Arabia even these days. But more important question is how to stop them? Answer may lie in War but it will come at a very high price.

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