Responding to Pyongyang With an Eye Toward Tehran

OK, so the axis of evil exists. Let’s use it.

As Jacob Weisberg notes elsewhere in Slate, when President Bush lumped Iraq, Iran, and North Korea into an “axis of evil” more than four years ago, the links among the three states were tenuous at best. Today, in no small part—though not exclusively—because of American policy, these states are inextricably linked. Nowhere is this clearer than with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear challenges. In the wake of North Korea’s apparent nuclear test, shaping an effective strategy demands acknowledging and understanding these connections.

The North Korean decision to test was influenced by the situations in both Iraq and Iran. Pyongyang likely estimated that the current American focus on Iraq would mean a relatively weak response. It had also seen Iran ignore international demands by refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, only to escape—so far—substantial negative consequences, which undoubtedly added to Pyongyang’s sense that it could ignore international warnings with impunity. This is not the first time North Korea has based its actions, at least in part, on what it saw happening to Iran: In June, the United States offered to support Iranian acquisition of nuclear reactors (under the right conditions), something it had ruled out for Pyongyang; a month later, apparently feeling neglected, North Korea launched a missile test.

Iran has also watched the North Korean situation evolve. Over the last four years, North Korea has refused to halt enrichment and reprocessing activities without significant international penalty; this cannot help but strengthen Iran’s belief that it too can defy the world. North Korea has also enlarged its nuclear arsenal against international protest, again without paying a meaningful price. Iran is nowhere close to testing a bomb, but it should be no surprise that Tehran increasingly doubts the international community’s resolve.

To a lesser extent, the relationships between North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are also material: Pyongyang sells Tehran missile technology, while Iran interferes in Iraq. These are important connections, but they do not directly affect the nuclear threat.

Links between the “axis” nations can, of course, be oversold. Many analysts contend that Iran has learned an important lesson from the other two states: Without nuclear weapons, you will be attacked (Iraq), but with them, you will be untouchable (North Korea). This logic is flawed. Iran could largely eliminate the risk of international sanctions or American attack by abandoning its nuclear ambitions, probably in exchange for nonaggression guarantees—it does not have to follow the North Korean route to enhance its security.

Meanwhile, a move toward nuclear weapons would not offer Iran similar protection to that enjoyed by North Korea—indeed, it could actually invite a military strike. The American decision not to attack North Korea is based on much more than the North Korean nuclear deterrent—North Korea’s million-man army and its conventional capability to destroy much of Seoul, along with the strong opposition of South Korea and China to an attack, were enough to make military action, or even sanctions aimed at regime change, extraordinarily unlikely. Iran’s situation is different—its neighbors are far less interested in protecting it, and its ability to wreak havoc in Iraq and Israel, while substantial, is less imposing than North Korea’s ability to devastate Seoul.

If assessing North Korea and Iran together, rather than as isolated cases, helps explain the past, a similar approach should also help inform future policy. Addressing the North Korean tests as a regional issue would make strategy simpler, but it would ignore the global interrelationships that history has laid bare. This means that our response to North Korea must be crafted with Iran in mind, and our Iran policy must be developed with an eye toward Pyongyang.

Credibility is the word of the day. Iran already doubts the seriousness of international warnings, having seen little follow-through thus far; a feckless response to North Korea’s claimed test will only reinforce this. The implication is obvious: Anything short of substantial sanctions imposed on North Korea will only encourage Tehran.

The United States and China began the week far apart on this front: The United States called for a naval quarantine and comprehensive economic and financial action, while China appeared inclined to controls over nuclear and missile exports. Alas, the world already imposed restrictions on those exports in the wake of North Korea’s summer missile test; the Chinese proposal, while useful, merely amounted to making past demands more legally enforceable. What’s more, if similar controls were applied to Iran, they would do little to restrain its weapons program. And a naval quarantine could be dangerous, potentially provoking a military response from North Korea, while doing little to affect its illicit exports.

A new American proposal floated Wednesday night moves the debate in the right direction. Washington proposed financial sanctions targeted at the North Korean nuclear and missile programs; a requirement for inspections of vessels thought to be transporting nuclear or missile technology rather than a universal requirement that every vessel be searched; a travel ban on North Koreans involved in the nuclear program; and sanctions targeted at luxury goods and hence at North Korean elites. It is surely no coincidence that these moves are similar to many that have been proposed for Iran—there, as here, the United States and Europe have advocated strong measures targeted at the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, as well as at Iranian elites. Imposing these measures on North Korea would thus send an important signal to Iran.

Iran may also be skeptical of American diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea. If Tehran believes, as many American experts do, that the United States has not pursued its negotiations with North Korea (the six-party talks) in good faith, it will also doubt the sincerity of American offers to talk with Iranian diplomats. More active American diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean crisis, including a willingness to clearly forswear regime change, could help convince Tehran that talks would be valuable. Drawing Tehran into negotiations will not necessarily end the Iranian nuclear program, especially if the talks are mishandled. (In particular, security guarantees must be on the table if a negotiated settlement with Tehran is to have any chance.) But with all other options appearing unpalatable, and with Iran still several years from the bomb, it would be a shame not to at least try as many tactics as possible.

We should not, however, be too sanguine about the potential for imposing heavy sanctions on North Korea, given the hesitancy on the part of Beijing, and, to a lesser extent, Seoul. Nor should we assume that harsh action against Pyongyang will magically resolve the Iranian showdown. North Korea has just grabbed global attention, but our focus on Northeast Asia cannot come at the expense of a similarly strong effort on Iran, all while we try to manage the mess in Iraq.

The situations in Iran and North Korea are now inextricably linked. Rather than focusing on assigning blame for how we got to where we are now, or on futile attempts to decouple the two challenges, we should embrace the new connections between them. Crafting our response to the North Korean test so that it sends the right signal to Iran would be an excellent first step.