If North Korea, Why Not Iran?

Monday, October 15, 2007


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In a deal welcomed by President Bush on Wednesday, North Korea has agreed to the internationally supervised dismantling of its nuclear program. It's certainly a foreign policy triumph for the Administration, and a remarkable turnabout of a situation in which the hope for denuclearization appeared forlorn only a year ago, when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. The latest deal, however, required a change of heart not only on the part of North Korea, but also by the Bush Administration. Persuading North Korea to put down its nukes required reversing the position Washington has adopted since the advent of the current Bush Administration, of refusing to countenance security guarantees for a regime famously "loathed" by President Bush, and insisting that Pyongyang not be rewarded for behaving badly.

In the deal, brokered by China, the price for North Korea's denuclearization is the U.S. taking regime change off the table and offering security guarantees and the phased normalization of economic and political relations with a regime currently on the U.S. list of nations sponsoring terrorism. Kim Jong Il's odious regime will thus survive (unless or until it collapses under its own weight) as the price for making the region considerably safer. A compromise, then, but as many diplomatic observers had long warned, the only deal possible to avoid confrontation.

The obvious next question is this: If Washington was prepared to compromise to achieve a deal on North Korea, then why not on Iran? Speaking Wednesday in Lancaster, Pa., President Bush indicated that he would, in fact, be willing to talk with Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment. But not otherwise. That, of course, is simply a restatement of a longstanding Administration position. But its hopes of reversing Iran's nuclear program on the basis of current policies remains remote.

U.N. sanctions adopted until now have failed to force Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, and new moves by Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency — though falling far short of the demand by the U.S. and its allies for an end to enrichment — have postponed discussion of further sanctions. The option of military strikes to stop Iran's nuclear activities, while kept "on the table" by the Administration — and loudly championed by its more hawkish associates — remains prohibitive in light of the uncertain prospects of success and the backlash it would trigger. And many old diplomatic hands in Washington and in allied capitals have long argued that the matter can only be settled by a "grand bargain" of the sort now in process with North Korea.

Still, the Iran standoff is unlikely to be resolved any time soon by a compromise similar to the one on North Korea, because of the substantial differences between the two cases. These include:

  • There is no mediator with substantial leverage over both parties. China could squeeze North Korea by virtue of the country's economic dependence on Beijing, at the same time making clear to Washington that there was no diplomatic alternative but to offer security guarantees.
  • The nuclear issue in Iran is less clear-cut. North Korea had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested a nuclear weapon; Iran remains under the NPT and is nowhere close to building nuclear weapons. Western governments fear that mastering civilian nuclear technologies such as uranium enrichment, allowed under the NPT, would put bomb-making capability within reach of the Iranian regime, and should be prevented. Iran counters that enrichment is its right under the NPT. For the U.N., the concern has been over Iran's transparency rather than the principle of enrichment. The lines of compromise are far from clear.
  • Unlike on North Korea, a strong domestic political constituency backs a more hawkish line on Iran. Last spring, for example, in response to pressure from strongly pro-Israel Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi removed a provision in a military spending bill that would have required the President to seek congressional approval before attacking Iran. More recently, Congress moved out ahead of the Administration's own position on taking action against European companies doing business with Iran, and on declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. With Israeli hawks warning that Iran threatens Israel's very existence, the pressure against any concessions is likely to remain strong.
  • The Administration has lately begun to define the U.S. mission in Iraq in terms of containing Iranian influence. This puts it at odds to some extent with the Iraqi government, whose leading elements see Iran as a longstanding friend and a key future partner. But the U.S. stance may make resolving the nuclear issue more difficult.
  • Most importantly, though, Iran is in a far stronger position to press for its terms than North Korea was. North Korea is an economic basket case with nukes; Iran doesn't yet have nukes, but it is one of the world's top five oil exporters, and its regional influence has grown exponentially as a result of the removal of two of its key enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and by virtue of its defiance of the U.S. In short, Iran is far from desperate to deal right now, and it would be inclined to make Washington pay an even higher political price than it did on North Korea for a "grand bargain."

If both sides take the steps necessary to avoid another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East, they will almost certainly be forced, eventually, into a deal not unlike the one achieved with North Korea. But given the different factors in play on Iran, that's a very big "if."