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The North-Korean and Iranian Nuclear Programs: similar, but not the same

The recent agreement brokered between the US and North Korea has been mentioned as an example and possible precursor to negotiations with Iran. It is hard to judge the efficacy of this current agreement until all its details are made known and it is actually implemented in the field. However, assuming, optimistically, that this agreement will bring to a halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it reportedly does not deal with North Korea’s already existing nuclear arsenal. Moreover, experts and analysts are in disagreement whether this can, as Secretary of State Rice noted, demonstrate the ability of the international community to impose meaningful sanctions and help ensure that Tehran does not build its own nuclear arsenal, or, as former ambassador to UN John Bolton noted, could embolden the Iranian regime to continue perusing its nuclear program under the assumption the Americans will be deterred from attacking and eventually forced to accede to their demands.

There are many similarities between the Iranian and North-Korean regimes. They are both repressive regimes headed by leaders whose personalities are questionable, they have been criticized by the West for human rights violations, are both on the State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism, their nuclear programs have sent ripples through the international arena and they were both listed in the infamous “Axis of Evil”. However, any comparison between the Iranian and North-Korean nuclear program and attempts to draw conclusions regarding possible scenarios for Iran must also take into account the grave differences between the countries’ ideological, economic, military and geopolitical situations.

For Pyongyang, nuclear weapons are a means to an end and a way to bring the US to the bargaining table, receive financial aid and political concessions and be removed from the list of countries that support terrorism. Indeed, Pyongyang had no qualms about announcing its intentions to develop nuclear weapons. Some even argue that it did so overtly specifically in order to draw American attention and force them into negotiations. Economically, following the end of the Cold War and the cessation of Soviet support, North Korea found itself in dire financial difficulty and there were even reports of food shortages and starvation. This situation was further exacerbated by sanctions that limited North Korean commerce. Unwilling to undergo regime change or concede reforms, Pyongyang had nothing much to offer the international community in negotiations, hence it needed a nuclear program in order to have bargaining leverage. Militarily, North-Korea has the fourth largest army in the world and a clear conventional advantage over South Korea; the few nuclear weapons North-Korea does posses do not seriously threaten Russia or China. Hence, nuclear weapons do not really add much to its strategic position. Since it is surrounded by Russia and China in the North, Japan in the East and South Korea in the South, Pyongyang does not really stand a chance at becoming a regional economic or military superpower, not unless it unites with South Korea. This demonstrates that North-Korea does not have any room to increase its influence in the region and hence does not need a nuclear program. In short, North Korea does not have much to gain from maintaining nuclear weapons, has much to gain from negotiating with the US and is in dire need of financial assistance. Furthermore, it has nothing else to offer the international community in exchange for concessions and does not have any strong ideological reasons for possessing nuclear weapons; thus it can afford to give them up.

Iran, on the other hand, is in a very different situation. Iran’s nuclear program is a goal within itself and not just a means to an end. Iran claims its nuclear program is only for civilian use, but its abundant oil reserves make that claim absurd. It seems highly unlikely that Iran, if it were to obtain nuclear weapons, would be willing to give them up. Economically, while Iran might not be an economic power, it is not nearly in such a dire situation as North Korea and the country is blessed with abundant natural resources of oil and natural gas, which should indicate that Iran has less of a need to use nuclear blackmail for financial gain. In fact, Iran also uses its oil in order to “buy” international favor and deters the international community with threats regarding oil supply. In terms of its international standing, by the early 21st century, Iran under the leadership of reformist Muhammad Khatami seemed to be warming its relations with the West under what Khatami termed “Dialogue between Civilizations”. If Iran wanted further concessions from the West, it would have been better off implementing reforms, not irritating the West by accelerating its nuclear program. Geopolitically, once the US neutralized Iran’s greatest regional enemy, Iraq, and toppled the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan thus creating a power vacuum, Iran has far greater influence in the region and with the help of a nuclear arsenal could become the leading regional power. Iran is already working to increase its influence in the Shiite regions of Iraq and the US has claimed that they supply weapons to the Shiite rebels. Syria has strategically aligned with Iran, Iranian-backed Hezbollah continues to gain power in Lebanon and only Turkey remains in Iran’s way. An Iranian nuclear weapon arsenal would vastly change the strategic balance between the two and greatly increase the Iranian sphere of influence. Ideologically, Iran’s stated goal of exporting the Islamic revolution and leading the Islamic world together with the wide range of support it provides various terrorists groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, would be vastly facilitated by a nuclear weapon, which would reduce the likelihood and scope of possible retaliation against Tehran. It should also be noted that Iran greatly accelerated its nuclear program under the leadership of President Ahmadenjad and his radical cohorts. If Iran is able to produce nuclear weapons, it would help these radical conservative elements solidify their leadership, galvanize the population around the country’s achievement and enable the leaders to avoid reforms. Most importantly, there is always the grave concern that, following his incessant denial of the Holocaust and speeches about erasing the Zionist entity off the map, Ahmadenjad might actually try and use nuclear weapons for that purpose, even at the price of Israeli or American retaliation. Indeed, Ahmadenjad constantly conveys his messianic and apocalyptic ideology, which includes preparing the stage for the return of the Mahdi – the hidden Imam. This is done by bringing chaos to the world – could using a nuclear bomb be part of that plan?

The events of the past few weeks suggest that the Bush administration has understood the differences between the two regimes and the fact that Iran would be very unlikely to surrender its nuclear weapons, if it were able to produce them. Although it continues to deny any plans to attack Iran, the US recently sent the USS John C. Stennis to head a strike force deployed in the Persian Gulf along with many other vessels already stationed in the region. Bush’s blunt accusations against Iran for meddling in Iraq and supplying Shiite insurgents with weapons further builds the Bush administration’s case against Tehran. Over the past few weeks some senior figures in Iran have suggested it might be better to halt their nuclear program and negotiate with the international community. On the other hand, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders have warned the US against attacking, conducted several exercises intended to demonstrate their resolve and capabilities and claimed they will strike back against American targets all over the world. They have also threatened to block the straights of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where approximately 20% of the world’s oil supply passes. While the US will certainly prefer diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians, it is looking more and more like it will not hesitate to call the Iranian bluff and prevent Iran from reaching the nuclear “point of no return”. It might just come down to who blinks first.