Comparing the nuclear challenges posed by North Korea and Iran

North Korea and Iran are both dangerous nuclear proliferators, and the comparison between them underscores the significant similarities.

Emily B. Landau ahead of the INSS Conference
DRAWING A comparison between Iran and North Korea in the nuclear realm is both conceptually sound and empirically instructive. Both states are strongly motivated nuclear proliferators that violated their NPT commitment to remain non-nuclear, and in both cases the effort to bring them back to the fold of the treaty has proven to be an extremely difficult arms control challenge for the international community. Moreover, Iran and North Korea are both dangerous nuclear proliferators – despite rhetorical protestations to the contrary, the aggressive behavior they display toward states in their regions and beyond undercuts their narrative of being solely defensively oriented in the missile and nuclear realms. The nuclear capabilities they seek – while useful for regime survival – are also a means for advancing offensive strategic goals. This finds expression in North Korea’s repeated threats of actual (first) use, but also in both states’ recognition of the value of a nuclear shield: the fact that nuclear capabilities render states invulnerable to coercive responses to their actions. This message was underscored by reactions to NATO’s attack of Libya in 2011, namely, that if Libya had not given up its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), it would not have been attacked.
North Korea today is a nuclear state – and according to latest US estimates, it has enough fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for about 60 nuclear weapons, as well as ballistic missiles that can be used to attack its close neighbors. Regarding an attack on the US mainland, despite North Korea’s demonstration of ICBM capability through missile tests carried out in 2017, it will most likely take more time and testing before North Korea can strike the US with a nuclear tipped missile. But it is inching toward this goal.
As far as is known, Iran is still well behind North Korea, and has not yet crossed the nuclear threshold. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran was meant to prevent Iran from ever reaching that stage by dismantling Iran’s dangerous nuclear infrastructure, but the deal does not achieve this goal. Moreover, Iran remains as motivated as ever to maintain and enhance its nuclear breakout capability. As such, once the main provisions of the deal expire, Iran can be expected to return to its previous nuclear activities. In fact, Iran will be even better positioned to do so, having in the ensuing period become stronger economically (sanctions lifted), regionally (having significantly enhanced its regional reach since the deal was presented), and in terms of its nuclear infrastructure (having worked on advanced centrifuges under the terms of the deal).
Some contest the comparison between these two states in the nuclear realm, noting that Iran and North Korea are actually very different – that unlike North Korea, Iran is not a nuclear state and that it has agreed to the JCPOA which curbs its program; moreover, they point out that Iran is an important regional actor with a rich cultural history, whereas North Korea is isolationist and aggressive. In short, the argument goes, in light of these differences analysts should not draw negative conclusions about Iran on the basis of the experience with North Korea.
It is no doubt true that these two states are very different in many respects, and that differences among states are sometimes pertinent to comparisons in the nuclear realm as well. But not always. In fact, the features that are normally mentioned in the North Korea-Iran context do not undercut the much more significant similarities between these two states. So the fact that North Korea is a nuclear state and Iran is not says nothing about the much more important question of their nuclear motivation, which is very strong in both cases. And if Iran remains behind North Korea, this is not a reason to dismiss the comparison, but should rather encourage us to take heed of what could ultimately evolve in Iran’s case as well.

WHEN THINKING about these two cases, beyond the common challenge that they pose to the international community that seeks their nuclear rollback, an important question is what we might expect from Iran if it too were to cross the nuclear threshold. And in this regard, some of the features mentioned by detractors of the comparison, in order to base their claim that Iran should not be unfavorably compared to North Korea, actually indicate that it is Iran that will be the more dangerous nuclear state.
Iran’s regional strength and the JCPOA it agreed to are actually not features that work in favor of making light of any pending threat. As in the case of deals that were struck with North Korea, the JCPOA is at best a partial deal that does not signal a strategic reversal on the part of Iran. Indeed, Iran often clarifies how easy it will be for it to revert back to its previous program if the P5+1 do not adhere to its demands. It did so when it threatened to return to 20 percent enrichment within five days, and with regard to the facility at Arak which Iran recently claimed it poured cement only into its external pipes, not the heart. Whether these statements are true or not, they are reminders that Iran has hardly made a decision to reverse course, and continues to threaten a quick return to previous activities. In the missile realm, Iran recently signaled its willingness to limit the range of its longrange ballistic missiles to 2000 km, but then almost immediately threatened European states that if they seek to target Iran’s missile program, Iran can easily extend the range to cover Europe. In short, Iran continues on an aggressive path, threatening whichever P5+1 state it wants to keep in line, while constantly reminding international actors of its nuclear and missile advances that can be revived and enhanced at any time.
The fact that Iran is a strong regional power is reason for great concern in the nuclear realm, and certainly not reassurance. This is because Iran demonstrates through its policies and behavior that it is not satisfied with being strong and secure within its own borders – it supports terror organizations and proxies across the Middle East in order to expand its power and influence.  Iran has regional hegemonic ambitions that it hopes to advance with the help of these proxies, and by creating a corridor of influence across the region.
Iran’s regional agenda would be significantly advanced if it were to achieve nuclear status. States tend to be very wary of challenging nuclear states, especially when they have just been established and it is not clear what their intentions are, or how they might react – in short, when rules of the game in the nuclear realm have not yet been established. This wariness and reluctance to confront the new nuclear state could initiate a process that works in favor of the proliferator – establishing rules of the game according to which it is Iran that deters strong international powers from even thinking of intervening in its affairs in light of implicit threats of nuclear use. The pattern of deterrence that Iran was able to establish vis-à-vis the Obama administration merely with its threats of leaving the nuclear deal show how vulnerable strong powers can be to such threats. While the Trump administration is working to empty these Iranian threats of their potency – on the basis of its assessment that it is clearly Iran’s interest to remain in the deal, at least for now – it will be a very different situation when Iran is a nuclear state and the stakes rise considerably.
It should be noted that there is one area where North Korea currently poses a more severe challenge than Iran, and that is with regard to further proliferation efforts and activities. North Korea has already proven its willingness to share nuclear knowhow, technology, and components to whoever is willing to pay hard cash. The fact that there is no ideology or religious affinity that North Korea adheres to in this regard makes it especially dangerous. Iran is less likely to follow this path of directly sharing its nuclear wares, although its cooperation with North Korea in the non-conventional realm could end up doing so via a more circular route.
North Korea and Iran are both dangerous nuclear proliferators, and the comparison between them underscores the significant similarities. They are both aggressively challenging nuclear norms that were established during the Cold War years, and have been upheld for the past 72 years. With due respect to some current international efforts to advance a “ban the bomb” agenda, the more realistic target of nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts should no doubt be these two most dangerous nuclear, and almost nuclear states.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a senior research fellow at the INSS and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program. Emily B. Landau will be participating in the 11th annual international conference of the INSS on January 29-31. Given the high demand, there are no remaining tickets. We invite you to watch the conference live here and on the INSS website,