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The Peninsula

Iran & North Korea: Mirror Images or Unique Challenges

Published October 2, 2013
Category: North Korea, Iran

By Mehrun Etebari

Yesterday, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the experience of North Korea – who reached an agreement to dismantle its nuclear program in 2005, but tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006 – must warn the international community to refrain from optimism over the newfound diplomatic push by Iran. While Netanyahu said a nuclear armed Iran would be so dangerous as to represent “another 50 North Koreas,” the differences between the two nations are stark enough to show that Tehran is more predictable and amenable to agreement than North Korea has proven to be.

The fear instilled by sanctions was clearly insufficient to prevent North Korea from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. However, North Korea and Iran have vastly different levels of susceptibility to sanctions. North Korea is one of the world’s most closed economies, and has had far less to lose from angering the West.  The CIA estimates its exports at $4.7 billion annually, with two-thirds of that going to China. Going nuclear did little if anything to harm its exports, which were actually even lower before its 2006 test.

On the other hand, in spite of self-reliance and independence being prominent features of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and rhetoric, Iran is absolutely nowhere near an autarkical economy. According to IMF data, in 2011, its exports totaled $130 billion, thanks to its role as OPEC’s number two oil producer. Despite diversification attempts, oil has remained the lifeblood of Iran’s economy. Thus, sanctions, particularly in the second half of the year, played a major role in dropping this figure to $103 billion in 2012 (more than $16 billion of this drop came from the European Union, which implemented an oil embargo). Iran is seeing firsthand the crippling economic costs that come from the continued sanctions, and is clearly motivated to strike a deal which will allow for sanctions removal.

Yes, Netanyahu worries that sanctions will be removed and Iran will then reverse course and push for a nuclear bomb. But given the pressure in the United States Congress, which is in a contest to perpetually one-up itself in being tough on Iran, it is safe to say the United States will not give Iran serious sanctions relief until there is a truly verifiable and enforceable agreement in place.

Sanctions history gives Iran a further incentive not to emulate North Korea. No UN Security Resolutions were enacted sanctioning Pyongyang for its nuclear program until its 2006 test, whereas six were passed against Iran’s program since 2006, with Resolution 1929 in particular paving the way for multilateral economic penalties. The North Korean experience shows that Iran would become a true pariah state under vastly increased sanctions if it were to obtain a nuclear weapon, and Tehran knows it could not afford even higher levels of economic warfare and isolation.

Further, unlike in North Korea, there is a somewhat open political culture in Iran which allows for debate on certain issues and which provides a window into the decision-making of the leadership. A presidential debate this year saw attacks on former head nuclear negotiator (and then presidential candidate) Saeed Jalili, in which he was excoriated for his intransigence in negotiations. When Ali Akbar Velayati, longtime foreign minister and current foreign affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, told Jalili, “You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps; this means that you don’t want to make progress,” and added, “We can’t expect everything and give nothing,” it showed that there is a legitimate and sincere belief among many in Iran’s political elite that real concessions are in Iran’s interest.  The election of the more conciliatory Hassan Rouhani – Netanyahu’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – was widely seen as a popular endorsement of this view. Popular opinion, as long as it remains within the constructs of the Islamic Republic system, does have resonance in Iran.

What of Netanyahu’s assertion that if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be more dangerous than North Korea?  If United States military assurances have successfully, if tenuously, kept South Korea and Japan from pursuing nuclear weapons of their own, a similar umbrella to prevent an arms race is not out of the question in the Middle East. As Kenneth Pollack, author of a new study on the topic put it, the Islamic Republic’s rationality, checks and balances, and most of all its desire for self-preservation would make it a less reckless nuclear power. In this context, he says, “North Korea makes Iran look like Canada.”

Finally, we should look at how Iranians see this comparison, and to be sure, Iranian views on North Korea are a mixed bag. Some express sympathy for another nation seen as a fellow target of American economic warfare, while others emphasize that the repressive and autocratic nature of the North Korean government is nothing to be championed. It’s true that some reacted to the February 2013 nuclear test as a rational tactic in the interest of North Korea – one analysis in the conservative Siasat-e Rooz daily, for example, wrote that “North Korea’s nuclear test is within the framework of the interests of that country in the long term and reinforces its upper hand in future negotiations,” while the hard-line Javan considered it a “response to America’s threats.”  But beyond the sympathy for another victim of sanctions lies a deep belief that the two nations are very different. As tensions between North Korea and the international community rose in April 2013, a commentary in the moderate Mardom Salari referred to North Korea’s erratic behavior, stated that, “Although the West was not able to achieve anything of value from its diplomatic channels and negotiations with North Korea, Iran is a democratic state that adheres to the ban on nuclear weapons and to the NPT and is also always ready to negotiate.”

While we may not yet be able to agree with Iran on all aspects of its nuclear program, we should be able to agree on a line from that same editorial: “Tehran is not Pyongyang,” and that they do represent unique challenges.

Mehrun Etebari is a DC-based Iran analyst and a regular contributor to the Brookings Institution’s Iran blog, The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo is from Kimon Berlin’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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