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.

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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. Another day another hawkish nonsensical writeup by Shireen Hunter the Iran hawk. That last paragraph should be the opening paragraph in this writeup so it would at least not conceal her usual verbal attack on the Iranian government. Serious engagement with Netanyahu is her magical solution to the 40 year old standoff that wants Iran off the map.

  2. Thanks to Don Bacon for expressing a side of the story woefully neglected. I find it disturbingly the same, regardless of mainstream media ultra-liberalism. The other side has minor recognition, or is
    human nature so degraded as to imagine the state of war ingrained in our DNA must be the at all times inevitable, and ever more imminent?
    Just asking.


  3. The real reason why the risk of war is real is because the governments of the west are in thrall to the globalist oligarchy and world Jewry and will not mind their own GD business!

  4. I guess that LobeLog puts Shireen Hunter’s articles on the blog to test the readership’s reaction to her consistent inability to think through the issues she writes about. Once again she has repeated statements without serious analysis or challenging their validity. Here is my reaction this time.
    The objective of a U.S. attack on Iran is stated by Shireen to be to ‘destroy Iran’s capability to be a military and economic power in the region’, ‘regime change is not enough’. And how will this be accomplished? Shireen says ‘By a week-long American bombing campaign to inflict considerable damage on Iran’s military and economic infrastructure’. Does that combination of objective and action make any sense to anyone beyond Shireen?
    The comment by Max uses the phrase ‘US military intervention in the region’. What might that be? What about the one-off 60 Tomahawk cruise missile attack on an airbase in Syria. Does that constitute a ‘military intervention’? I think the US President believes it does: ‘YES, the greatest, most successful attack the US has ever made in the region; not the wishy-washy stuff of my predecessor’. And that sort of military intervention is going to ‘destroy’ Iran? Let’s get serious and raise the level of the exchange on LobeLog.

  5. James Larrimore I was also puzzled for a short period as to why Shireen Hunter’s fictional writings were put up here on this site. Khosrow once mentioned that it was to have a variety of perspectives on this site, but I think it’s because her husband Robert Hunter write here as well, with much more validity of course, therefore out of respect she can’t be refused to insert her two cents worth of fiction.

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