Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Media attention and policymaker focus has rightfully shifted to the ongoing saber-rattling between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The world is watching how the two parties and their respective allies will handle the crisis in the coming weeks. Indeed, the new geopolitical environment is being tested with the intractable pursuit of nuclear weapons by North Korea, national security approaches by the US and the resurgent global power of Russia and China. In the middle of this, Cold War alliances between the US and its East Asian allies are working to understand how to navigate these new realities.
Iran is watching. Boasting a stronger economy and military than North Korea, Iran has a similar ability to unleash destruction in its region, with US allies caught in the crosshairs. While North Korea has nuclear weapons, which Iran does not currently possess, Iran’s militaristic foreign policy could be enhanced depending on how the US responds to the issues of the Korean Peninsula. Both regimes have proven that they can survive, indeed continue to threaten peace and stability, even with varying international sanctions regimes.
Military strategists are reluctant to pursue the military option against North Korea due to the devastation it would wreak on the civilian populations of US allies, notably South Korea and Japan. Iran boasts a similar advantage. US military action against Iran would likely lead to Iranian strikes on US military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula. Iran will also undermine US efforts to achieve its desired end-state in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps worse than in the North Korea case, action against Iran would also destabilize global oil prices.
US reluctance to deal with North Korea because of the catastrophic toll it would take on US interests in the region serves to cement Iranian intransigence. Unlike North Korea, Iran possesses extensive paramilitary capabilities that can be deployed against US-Israeli interests around the world should conflict become hot between the US and the Iranian regime.
Signaling US intolerance for the flouting of international conventions and norms is of top priority at this point. North Korea is a test case and rogue governments such as Iran’s clerical regime will calibrate their actions based on how the US resolves the standoff on the Korean Peninsula. War would be devastating for all powers in both instances, Iran and North Korea. However, in the case of Iran, war will come eventually. The US will likely not pursue the military option against North Korea. Meanwhile, the hermit kingdom will manipulate the geopolitical environment to ensure its only means of survival, its nuclear program, remains largely intact.
Neither the Iran nor the North Korea predicaments were created in the past few months or even years. They are decades in the making. The most effective method would have been to deal with them when their intransigence first surfaced. The longer this dangerous dance continues, the worse the options will become.The author is a former US diplomat and FBI counterterrorism intelligence analyst with over 15 years of experience studying and working in the Middle East and South Asia.