Hermit Kingdom and Empire in Waiting
Today, Singapore, 14/02/2006
After the successful conclusion of the negotiations with North Korea in which Pyongyang apparently committed itself to no less than nuclear disarmament, people are asking themselves to what extent this diplomatic victory may be indicative of what can be achieved with the equally recalcitrant regime in Teheran. Unfortunately, the differences between the two situations are considerable and it is unlikely that Iranian President Ahmadinejad will cave in as Kim Jong Il did.
A crucial difference between the North Korean and the Iranian situation is the perceived immediacy of the threat. North Korea had already detonated a nuclear charge (Oct. 9, 2006) and successfully tested ballistic missiles to boot thus creating real urgency. Iran, while having developed ballistic missiles, has apparently not yet succeeded in enriching nuclear materials to the degree necessary and is, according to best estimates, a few years away from detonating a nuclear device. What does put an edge to the Iranian threat is the evident ideological extremism of the regime. Messianic President Ahmadinejad certainly sounds like somebody who would at least threaten to use nuclear weapons if he had them, in particular against those that do not subscribe to Shia Islam.
To identify other differences, looking closer at North Korea shows a failed nation unable to feed its citizens or provide sufficient energy to its economy. As such, while blackmailing the world with its nuclear program, it ultimately exposed itself critically to economical leverage which eventually delivered an agreement in return for energy supplies. Iran however, while economically weak, is a major energy exporter with considerable foreign trade, enough to make its trade partners reluctant to seriously consider tough sanctions. North Korea wasn’t a big enough customer for anything but energy so lesser sanctions weren’t easy to apply. Nevertheless, travel bans for North Korean officials, a ban on luxury goods (hitting the regime directly) and some effectively applied financial restrictions mandated by the unanimous UN Security Council vote against North Korea on Oct. 15, 2006, eventually brought the message home. With China, North Koreas main trade partner voting in favor, Pyongyang was in a no-win situation and Kim Jong Il finally ran out of French Cognac.
Iran’s economy is more balanced and largely independent except for some high-tech items and critically, refined fuel products. Due to its energy exports it has real leverage over some of the world’s major players, notably China, Japan and some European countries. Accordingly, a strictly applied sanctions regime could become a potentially damaging and expensive proposition, not only for the intended recipient.
Another major difference is the regional context – North Korea has two powerful immediate neighbors who had a major interest in stabilizing the situation and neutralizing the nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang: Japan and South Korea. Two additional powerful players, Russia and China had great interest in resolving the issue diplomatically. When acting in conjunction with the US like in this case, it became a coalition that just couldn’t be beaten.
Iran’s regional situation is a lot more fluid and unstable and after Iraq’s demise as a regional power, there is no country close by challenging Teheran’s rising influence. The coalition dealing with Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, has a lot less common interest than the coalition dealing with North Korea had. Iran’s most powerful close neighbor, Russia, out of self-interest (a lot of bilateral trade) is not acting in concert with the Europeans and the US and China, another neighbor, is hedging its bets for similar reasons. Accordingly the UN sanctions against Iran, agreed upon in December 2006, were the absolute lowest common denominator arguably unable to make a real impression on a regime hell-bent on pushing its nuclear program ahead.
The biggest contrast between the two cases is in the ideological and cultural background. Secular North Korea’s nuclear posturing aimed primarily at internal Korean consumption for defensive purposes and tangible benefits. Secure in the knowledge that nobody wanted his regime to collapse, Kim Jong Il has now played his nuclear card. Iran is running its nuclear program largely to lift Shia Islam from its historically inferior position, establish primacy over the Sunna, establish regional hegemony in the oil-soaked Gulf and lead Islam worldwide. Certain that the US want regime change, Ahmadinejad needs nuclear weapons to survive. Once he’s got them, he may well use them to threaten Gulf countries into line to cause oil prices to rise to the levels necessary for Iran to become economically self-sufficient.
To sum up, while the diplomatic success vis-à-vis North-Korea gives room for hope, Iran is a different ballgame altogether. Teheran is less vulnerable to sanctions, is ideologically driven to an offensive and global orientation and the potential impact of its nuclear threat has not been recognized. Letting Iran go nuclear will be a hugely dangerous gamble.