America is in a tense and dangerous standoff with both North Korea and Iran. It is important to note five crucial differences between the two crises.
First the similarities: both countries are led by rogue regimes – repressive, aggressive and consumed by both hate and fear. Both see the existing international order as a travesty, and they detest the US and all that it stands for.
Despite almost incomprehensible differences in ideological outlook, they have worked closely together on a range of strategically significant projects.
And yet the situation regarding their military nuclear projects differs in highly significant ways, as detailed below. The bottom line is this: while the North Korean genie may be irretrievably out of the bottle, more action to stop Iran must be taken quickly, and can be taken effectively, before it is too late.
Firstly, prevention is easier than a cure.
North Korea already has a military nuclear capability and has tested several warheads or devices. To actively roll back an existing arsenal – a procedure only known to have happened once before, and that was in the unique circumstances created when the
Apartheid regime in South Africa handed the reins of power to Nelson Mandela – is a tall order, which may well lead to the unhappy demise of the brother and sister team that now governs in Pyongyang. To stop Iran well short of the bomb should be distinctly easier, despite the intensity of Iran’s ambitions and the weaknesses of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) framework.
Secondly, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran with a bomb would be far more dangerous than Kim Jung-un of North Korea is. It is not necessary, in this context, to assert possible implications of millennial religious irrationality, as some prominent scholars have done. Even without such claims about the Iranian mind, the regional and global implications of the present leadership in Iran possessing a nuclear military capability would be far more lethal – and not only for Israel – than has been the case with the PDRK.
Unlike North Korea, which has absolutely no influence beyond its own well-guarded borders, Iran has a vast network of proxies, agents and allies worldwide. They are already on the march in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, with hidden hands elsewhere in the region, and sleeper terrorist cells around the globe.
It is not difficult to imagine how they would act if emboldened by an Iranian nuclear umbrella over their heads. An Iranian bomb would be a large torch in the dry and withering field of regional politics; and Iran’s own ambitions extend beyond it, seeking to undo the international post-1945 order (with the destruction of Israel seen as an important part of the demise of this order).
Third of all, if Iran goes nuclear, the dam will burst. Somehow, the PDRK’s first nuclear tests did not yet bring down the entire non-proliferation system. Neither South Korea nor Japan felt at the time that this automatically obliged them to break their own oaths and seek an independent deterrent. This is probably because they have been sheltering under the protective wing of the US for many years against the much more powerful People’s Republic of China arsenal. (Whether they still feel the same way is a different question).
But this does not hold for the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean countries (the so-called “Middle East”), for whom a successful Iranian breakout is bound to ignite a nuclear arms race. Paradoxically, this has not happened until now despite the prevalent assumption among Arab leaders that Israel is a nuclear power. This is a good indication of the fact that Arab leaders never believed their own rhetoric about Israel’s expansionist ambitions or quest for regional dominance, and saw no need (beyond diplomatic maneuvers) to counter the “ambiguous deterrent.”
Iran, however, is a different proposition.
In recent years it has not even tried to hide its overarching regional revolutionary ambitions.
Saudi Arabia, which may well have a claim on the Pakistani nuclear weapons product, will not stand idle if Iran is deemed to be approaching the goal line; nor will Turkey, and perhaps not even Egypt. The cascade effect would soon bring down the remnants of the NPT, with all that this would entail for global stability and the loss of all that has been achieved since 1970.
Fourth, sanctions can work. North Korea is somewhat impervious to sanctions, since it is already among most miserable places on earth. Depraved policies have created a deprived society. Extensive reports on cannibalism (literally, people eating their children, as in the worst biblical curses) exist as recently as the mid-1990s. Speaking of sanctions in this context is little more than a ritual and declarative activity, designed to assuage the need for a “firm response,” and perhaps to signal to Pyongyang that even Beijing’s patience has its limits. But sanctions will not profoundly alter the balance of internal power, even if some of Kim Jong-un’s toys are actually taken away from him.
Iran, on the other hand, has proven to be quite susceptible to economic pressure. The sanctions successfully initiated, orchestrated and implemented by the Obama administration did bring Iran to the table – for which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton deserve considerable credit. But at the table this powerful lever was traded away for much less than could have been bargained for – for which the former president and his second secretary of state deserve much less credit.
What made the sanctions so effective is first of all Iran’s own proud identity as a trading nation once open to the world; its persistent dependence on energy exports and the price of oil; and equally important, the hybrid political model that does give the people a (strictly limited) voice in the choice of the second tier of governance.
The events of 2009 signaled that unlike the situation in the PDRK, serious trouble can erupt in the streets of Tehran. If they spread to the dense urban expanse of Islamshahr, in the southern parts of Tehran, fanned by the winds of economic discontent, the regime could truly find itself facing an Iranian day of reckoning not unlike those the Arab world saw in 2011.
Hence the utility of the tool. In the context of decertification, there are ways of again using sanctions to rewrite the basic rules of the West’s relationship with Iran, without even ditching the JCPOA altogether.
Finally, war with Iran is an option, whereas it is close to impossible with North Korea.
The frank admission by ex-Trump strategist Stephen Bannon in August 2017 that regarding North Korea “there’s no military solution, forget it” should have come as no surprise to all who know the basic realities there.
The great and prosperous concentration on the Han River, in Seoul and Inchon, is within range of massive conventional attack by the North. And the political leadership of the South, no matter how hawkish in its attitudes towards Pyongyang, will never allow a repeat of the horror and destruction of 1950-1953.
The situation is not entirely beyond repair – Chinese pressure may help – but war is not really an option.
In the case of Iran, however, the local players are willing to take the risks of war, if this is what is necessary to keep Iran in check. This is true even of countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel who face existential threat from Iran if a conflict erupts. This is an important point.
Even if war is the least desirable outcome, a credible military threat is nevertheless necessary if the world is to unite behind renewed pressure on Iran.
If the choice is between the present situation, with a steady flow of trade and some return on investment, and a return to partial sanctions, many Europeans would choose the former. But if the choice is between effective sanctions and a slide toward war, even China may eventually draw the right conclusions.
The bottom line is this: the Iranian situation is both more urgent and more malleable than the almost-hopeless situation with North Korea. The decertification moment should be turned into an effective strategic tool, in close cooperation between the administration, Congress and key allies whose help would be needed if the economic squeeze is to be effective.
Renewed pressure, coupled with a credible military threat, may (indeed, must) produce a better outcome than the one outlined in the JCPOA. Otherwise, we all will find ourselves facing very grave dangers in the not too distant future.The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Israel’s new conservative security think tank. The institute’s launch conference is on November 6.