Any day now North Korea may undertake its fourth nuclear weapons test since 2006.
What would be the impact of a North Korean nuclear weapons test on the ongoing Iran-P5+1 nuclear program negotiations? Iran and North Korea are considered the two rogue nations playing most dangerously with nuclear weapons possibilities.
The parameters of the general debate on the impact of North Korea and Iran nuclear diplomacy are clear, with the debate being about how much they cooperate on technical nuclear issues and how much the behavior of one country in negotiations impacts the other.
Many who wish to take a harsher stand with Iran are suspicious that reports of clandestine nuclear cooperation between the two countries are true, especially relating to missile technology.
They also believe that Iran has continuously ignored Western ultimatums, viewing North Korea as proof that these ultimatums are a paper tiger.
In February, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said the more nuclear-advanced North Korea is what he expected Iran to become if the West does not take a tougher stance in Iranian negotiations to eliminating, and not merely pausing, Iran’s path to a bomb.
Many who are willing to make compromises toward Iran’s positions in nuclear negotiations are skeptical that there is any nuclear cooperation, since most of North Korea’s push has been nuclear weapons through plutonium, while most of Iran’s push has been through uranium – though both countries have explored secondary paths.
The argument against worrying about cooperation between the countries is that neither has expertise that can assist the other, since the facilities they have are targeted at different paths to a nuclear weapon.
They are also skeptical that there are impacts between the two tracks, citing different Iranian and North Korean goals, power levels, regional and geopolitical circumstances.
The Obama administration has clearly tried to separate the tracks, first investing on pressuring Iran and then pushing hard for a big deal.
Meanwhile, it has “strategically” ignored North Korea, convinced from failures by prior administrations that the North cannot be trusted to stick to the deals it signs – of which there have been many.
In that vein, the recent unusual personal visit by President Barack Obama to several Asian allies, intended to assure them that the US has their back in the face of border disputes and other threats posed by China and North Korea, appeared to be, among other things, an attempt to fill in the gap by some of the inattention until now.
In some ways, even the trip itself highlighted that inattention in that it has been postponed extensively from the original planned dates by more “urgent” events.
If North Korea is to be believed, the latest nuclear test will have new or more advanced aspects to it and would show North Korea’s defiance to American power.
To some degree it would also provide Iran with proof that it can defy the world powers without suffering a regime change.
On the other hand, the North’s still newish and young leader Kim Jong Un, 30, appears caught up in proving he is tough by reacting to smaller events – like a recent negative UN vote against North Korea’s program and a planned annual US-South Korea joint military drill.
The “proving toughness trend” could be seen as confirmed by Jong Un’s January execution of his powerful and much older uncle, Jang Song Thaek – who many had assumed would be heavily influencing Jong Un’s policy.
In contrast, whether Iran is ready to give up its drive for a weapon or not, it appears that its much more seasoned and self-assured President Hassan Rouhani, 66, is less worried about looking tough – in some ways this is his second round in power, having been a top aide to prior presidents.
He is also ignoring all sorts of smaller effronteries to Iran by the US and others in favor of pushing for some sort of deal – so that Iran can maintain its program on some level.
Also, while North Korea has not suffered regime change, it also is still a starving country which is completely isolated and has very little at the moment to show from its nuclear status.
From that perspective, Iran may conclude that if it plays its cards right, it can reap most of the benefits from being a nuclear power that the North has missed – it already has partial sanctions relief – while maintaining a near break-out capability that will be accepted by most of the West.
This does not mean that North Korea will not secretly help Iran progress in its nuclear weapons program despite any deal.
It also does not mean that North Korea’s continued flouting of the international order on nuclear weapons may not, from a distance, be seen by Iran as a reason to refuse to make concessions on its program beyond a certain point.
But, if for no other reason than the different circumstances surrounding Jong Un and Rouhani, it probably does mean that the North Korean nuclear weapons test will not derail the US-Iranian talks in a substantial way.