Peas in a Nuclear Pod

Much separates Iran and North Korea, but the two have plenty in common when it comes to nuclear ambitions * Whenever they move to appease the West, they somehow get closer to realizing their goals, while the world fumbles to curtail them.

The world recently marked two years since Iran and the West signed a landmark nuclear agreement, and much has been said on the issue.

Those who support the deal “celebrated” its success, saying it was the best alternative and that Iran’s compliance with the agreement, apart from several minor violations, proves its success. Those who opposed the deal (myself included) have pointed out that it has enabled Iran to be readmitted into the family of nations, and the alliance it has since formed with Russia, which I believe was forged only because of the deal, has allowed it to become a regional power. Iran’s control of the axis between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut will one day lead to a bloody struggle, both with Israel and with the Sunni Arab states, which see Iran’s expansion aspirations as a threat to their very existence.

This week, ostensibly in an unrelated move, North Korea took a major step toward creating a nuclear balance of terror toward the United States, testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially hit the heart of the U.S. Pyongyang saw this move as necessary so as to ensure that under no circumstances would Washington pressure it to change its ways or conduct, thus maintaining complete freedom in how the isolated nation navigates its future course.

Over the past few decades, North Korea’s leaders have assumed that the U.S. would be wary of pressing a nuclear state capable of threatening major American cities. It was the North’s way of insuring itself against any use of force by the West.

The North Korean case is interesting because over the past 25 years the West had held several negotiations with it, in various forums, and several agreements were signed with aim of halting the nuclear project it launched in the mid-1980s. Every North Korean violation of the agreements earned condemnations, but it never suffered any real penalties. Economic sanctions proved futile, and Pyongyang forged ahead even when it was made to pay a heavy economic price, which it still pays today. U.N. Security Council resolutions against the rogue nation proved equally useless and brought no change in North Korea’s policy.

Still, there were a few moments of optimism along the way. The North’s 2005 deal with the U.S., for example, was lauded as a breakthrough, and some in Israel had hoped similar efforts would lead to an effective nuclear deal with Iran. But the U.S. and the international community’s feeble reaction to the country’s first nuclear test in 2006 made then-leader Kim Jong Il — the father of current leader Kim Jong Un — realize that violating the deal harbored no risk, and the “breakthrough agreement” turned into yet another step towards North Korea becoming a nuclear threshold state.

The strong correlation between the North Korean process and the Iranian case is clear, and it was underscored further in 2007, when Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said, “Pay attention to North Korea’s conduct. What has come of two years of negotiation with North Korea? It led to [the West’s] acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear technologies in the field of uranium enrichment. So now, they [the West] will accept ours.”

One would have to be blind not to see the astounding resemblance between the international processes opposite Iran and North Korea, as both have undergone the same stages of dialogue with the global community, led by the United States.

One would also have to be incredibly naive to think that Iran, which is far more powerful than North Korea, would not exploit the weakness shown by the international community, again led by the U.S. It is clear Iran is biding its time and that it will not hesitate to break free of the restrictions imposed on it by the toothless 2015 agreement and continue on its nuclear path as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Larijani was right. There are major differences between Iran and North Korea and the spheres in which they operate.

The first and very significant difference is the position and international standing of South Korea, the North’s wealthy neighbor, versus the position and standing of Iran’s neighbors. South Korea is wary of any confrontation, and not for nothing is its capital, Seoul, is less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border with the North, a border along which thousands of artillery guns are deployed, ready to strike Seoul immediately. There are also massive North Korean armored forces on the border, ready to march through the huge tunnels running under it to take the South.

In stark contrast, Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors and even Israel would relish any severe measures taken against the Islamic republic, including the use of military force, even though the Islamic republic would clearly mount a forceful response.

The second difference stems from the relative power North Korea and Iran each wield. While the former is weak and insignificant in terms of the global economic system, the latter is a regional power with a prominent position in the international energy market, especially for China and India. This makes North Korea a country against which it is easier to mobilize the international community, as opposed to a real difficulty in garnering global support to once again pressure Iran.

In retrospect, it is clear that one of the reasons that led the international community to come together and pressure Iran stemmed from the shared concern that without such pressure, Israel would potentially have no choice but to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. It seems that the world wanted to curb Israel, and potentially the U.S., far more than it wanted to curtail Iran.

Once it became clear that under the Obama administration the military option was off the table and Israel, under boisterous protest, accepted the American move toward a nuclear deal without realizing its threats, global concern waned. It is clear that without this constraint, the international community will do nothing to stop Iran once it crosses the nuclear threshold. Anyone who fails to see this is ignoring the lessons learned from the North Korean precedent.

Meanwhile, Iran is promoting the development of an envelope scheme that will allow it to embark on a path to possess nuclear power: Assisted by Russia, it is intensively building its air defense systems; it is cultivating a solid economy that could better withstand potential future sanctions and other means of economic pressure, which was what brought it to the negotiation table on its knees — an achievement wasted by the American negotiators as soon as they allowed the Iranians to understand that Washington was as eager to strike a deal as they were; and it is developing missiles that would allow it to launch nuclear weapons to any range, as well as the next generation of centrifuges that would allow it to make the leap to enriched uranium at peak speed.

Israel must learn the lessons of the nuclear agreement with Iran as well as study how North Korea became a nuclear power that threatens the U.S. Iran must not be allowed to duplicate the success of its Korean Peninsula friend.

Originally appeared in Hebrew in Israel Hayom on August 7, 2017 and also at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on August 22, 2017.