Global Policy Forum

North Korea Eases the Heat on Iran - For Now


By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi*

Asia Times
October 11, 2006

In view of Pyongyang's apparent nuclear test, with the new flare-up in North Korea's nuclear crisis promising serious geostrategic ramifications on a long-term basis, the pertinent question is how this will affect the Iran nuclear standoff.

A short answer is that it cuts both ways. Iran has officially blamed the United States for North Korea's nuclear test, and various Tehran commentators have predicted that the US now will be forced into face-to-face bilateral talks with North Korea as a sign of political recognition. While short of hailing Pyongyang's move, Tehran's reaction appears to be tilted in North Korea's favor, and depending on the backlash against North Korea, it remains to be seen how North Korea's actions will influence Iran.

North Korea's test may have been registered as equal to a small earthquake, but it will undoubtedly have much larger geopolitical and geostrategic implications. As the world's ninth nuclear nation (including Israel), North Korea has hedged its bets on a whole set of windfalls - security, economic, trade, humanitarian aid, etc - potentially generated as a result of its elevated status. The United Nations Security Council is unlikely to generate more than a verbal censure, and this, in turn, raises the issue of how the council can possibly justify stern action against Iran, which unlike North Korea has neither exited the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime nor announced any intention to build nuclear weapons. North Korea left the NPT for good in 2002.

Manna from heaven for Iran?

On Friday, a London meeting of the foreign ministers of the UN's permanent five plus Germany (P5+1 - the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia) failed to yield any results. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman categorically rejected the notion of an even temporary suspension of uranium-enrichment activities, a position now easier to defend after North Korea's test on Monday. With Russia expressing strong reservations over imposing any sanctions on Iran, the Security Council now is even less prepared to tackle the Iran issue, given the urgency of the North Korea crisis. Diplomatically, then, the North Korea crisis must be considered a timely boon for Iran, particularly if the Security Council does not impose punitive counter-measures against Pyongyang.

Geostrategically, the North Korea nuclear crisis benefits Iran in several ways. First, it may translate into a costly US force buildup in the Korean Peninsula, thus reducing the United States' military menace with regard to Iran. Second, Iran, which has purchased North Korean missiles in the past, may opt to strengthen its military relations with North Korea, in which case its bargaining position in the ongoing negotiations will be somewhat enhanced. Third, China, which relative to Russia has been quiet on the issue of Iran sanctions, may now find itself hard-pressed to support the United States' bid for sanctions against Iran. This is because of Beijing's extensive ties with Pyongyang - China is North Korea's main trade partner and supplier of food, petroleum, technology, investment capital and economic aid.

As a result, despite its verbal condemnation of North Korea, China is unlikely to go along with any tangible UN sanctions on North Korea and, in turn, this will make it doubly difficult for Beijing to rationalize future support for sanctions on Iran. But at the same time, a long-term analysis of how the two nuclear crises are interrelated and impact each other may need to wait until the dust of the North Korean test and the international uproar it has caused settles. Iran may, in fact, draw a different conclusion from this "other crisis" should the latter trigger an unwanted nuclear-arms race in Asia, with Japan and South Korea following suit.

Such a "domino effect" impacts Iran's national-security calculus paradoxically. That is, on the one hand it strengthens the argument of hardliners who argue that the NPT is for all practical purposes dead and the proliferation wave is too all-embracing for Iran to ignore. Also, they may cite North Korea's potential success in forcing the US and its allies to bring more to the table now that they are faced with more than "empty talks" and saber-rattling by Pyongyang delivering good on its intentions to "join the nuclear club".

But on the other hand, Iran's more moderate politicians might take a different cue by arguing that the Korea crisis demonstrates the need for more proactive steps to prevent regional proliferation, as Iran's neighbors - Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular - may pursue nuclear weapons. This they might do if they perceive a threat of Iranian proliferation and are influenced by the reactions of North Korea's neighbors. Such divergent interpretations from Iran have already begun to emerge in a feeble fashion, and in time they will be more forcefully reflected in the nation's media and policy circles. Until now, Iran's official and semi-official position has been that Iran's differences from North Korea are simply too great to permit a comparison. That might change now, depending again on the nature of the backlash and geopolitical changes caused by Pyongyang's nuclearization.

The chances are North Korea will become more of a "reference" by Iran in the near future, in part to highlight the rather egregious double standards of the international community in turning a blind eye to proliferation in one case and vehement objection to the (allegations of) proliferation in another. This is not even to mention the proposed US-India nuclear-sharing agreement, which flies in the face of the United States' own non-proliferation commitments.

Concerns for the NPT

No matter what the immediate reactions from Iran to the news of North Korea's test, Tehran has to worry about the continued viability of the non-proliferation regime at large. This is generated by North Korea's exit in 2002 and the lack of commitment of some state parties to their respective NPT obligations.

The NPT is too important to be declared dead, or even irrelevant, by the big blow of North Korea's nuclear program. From Iran's prism, the lofty objective of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone still merits support, as do the NPT-led initiatives on the disarmament front. These include the Group of Eight's Global Partnership Against Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which calls for the gradual elimination of fissile materials. All the same, little progress has been made by the two major players, Russia and the US, which have yet to implement the NPT's "13 practical steps" for the systematic elimination of nuclear weapons.

An Iranian parliamentarian, Alaadein Boroujerdi, has called for tangible steps toward disarmament, thus reiterating Iran's commitments to its NPT obligations. The links between disarmament and non-proliferation have never been so clearly visible as today, with North Korea highlighting the similar connection between proliferation and conventional-force buildup. Without doubt, a double proliferation by North Korea and Iran would spell definite doom for the NPT as a whole, opening a Pandora's box of national-security concerns for Iran. As a result, this simultaneously both strengthens and weakens the rudimentary arguments in favor of Iranian proliferation, as stated above.

But Iran cannot be self-locked in its immediate region and remain oblivious to the larger realities on the global scale, which means that Tehran must do what it can to ensure the continued viability of the NPT, in light of its long good-standing membership as a state party to NPT for more than 30 years. The whole, however, must not be at odds with the parts, and Iran's NPT obligations cannot and should not be considered in isolation from the precarious state of the NPT today, ie, as a regime in crisis. Yet instead of joining North Korea for what would amount to a loud requiem for the non-proliferation regime, a responsible Iranian reaction would be to adopt the long-term view of things and do what is necessary on its part, as a respectable member of the international community, to strengthen this regime.

About the Author: Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on the Threat of US Intervention in Iran
More Information on UN Sanctions Against Iran
More Information on Iran
More Information on North Korea
More Information on Sanctions Against North Korea


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.