How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
North Korea’s most recent long-range ballistic missile tests, which demonstrate progress toward an ability to strike U.S. soil with a nuclear weapon, mostly concern the United States and its Asian allies. But the repercussions of the test are felt well beyond Asia and North America. Across the Middle East, the inevitable question is whether Washington’s apparent willingness to live with North Korean nuclear weapons—even those that can now be delivered to the United States itself—foreshadows what is to come in Iran. Leaders and populations around the region, especially in Israel and the Gulf states, fear that they may be watching a movie play out in East Asia that will soon be screened closer to home.
The concern is not misplaced, and the similarities between the two cases are disconcerting. In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration announced an “Agreed Framework” that would “freeze and then dismantle” the North’s nuclear program, promising that “South Korea and our other allies will be better protected,” “the entire world will be safer,” and “the United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments.” But Pyongyang cheated, the deal collapsed, and, within a decade, North Korea was back on the path to the bomb.
The George W. Bush administration tried a more confrontational approach, but it failed, too. Despite a new doctrine of preemption and pledges to prevent hostile actors such as North Korea from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Bush could do nothing but “condemn this provocative act” when Pyongyang tested a weapon in 2006. And despite pledges that North Korea would be held “fully accountable” if it proliferated nuclear weapons or materials, the administration stood by without acting as Pyongyang proceeded to build a secret, plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor in Syria. According to senior U.S. intelligence officials, that effort was only stopped when Israel took matters in its own hands and bombed the site in 2007.
Even though a military option for Iran is far from ideal, the United States and its allies need to keep the option viable.
Seeking to avoid military confrontation, but also refusing to reward North Korea’s behavior with talks, the Barack Obama administration in 2009 turned to a policy of “strategic patience,” but then could only patiently watch as Pyongyang built up a significant nuclear arsenal and advanced its delivery systems.
Next up was the Trump administration. When, in January 2017, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un signaled an intention to test a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, Trump famously boasted on Twitter that “It won’t happen!” and later announced that he was sending “an armada” to the region. Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Trump’s message by traveling to the Korean demilitarized zone and warning Pyongyang not to “test [Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States.” But test it they have, and all indications are that the U.S. response will be no more effective than it has been in confronting other North Korean advances over the past 20 years.
With this track record, leaders and publics across the Middle East could be forgiven for wondering whether American efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb will prove any more successful. But there are key differences between the two situations, and it is important to draw the right lessons from the North Korean experience. There is still time to prevent Iran from following in North Korea’s footsteps, but only if leaders in Washington and elsewhere are honest about the challenge and recognize not just what is familiar about it but what is different as well.
Some would argue that because diplomacy failed in North Korea, the United States and its partners should eschew any attempt at negotiations and simply focus on economic and diplomatic isolation until the Iranian regime caves or collapses. But that would be a mistake for a number of reasons. In the North Korean case, the Agreed Framework collapsed in part because the U.S. Congress, determined not to “appease” Pyongyang, refused to live up to commitments to provide the North with energy supplies, as stipulated by the deal. And the absence of a negotiated deal resulted in neither North Korean collapse nor compromise but rather a paranoid nuclear-weapons state with intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities—hardly an advertisement for that strategy. The right approach to Iran today is thus not to give up on negotiations, which would leave the disastrous alternatives of accepting an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran, but to make such negotiations work.
Iran is a more open and dynamic society than North Korea. It has an unpopular government, an educated middle class, and a young population eager to join the international community, which makes the regime more susceptible to pressure and to incentives. Although far from guaranteed, it is at least possible that by the time some of the current restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program start to expire nearly a decade from now, Tehran will be under different leadership, with which more constructive dialogue, nuclear assurances, and even regional cooperation might be possible.
It would be naive to believe than any Iranian government—even one no longer particularly hostile to Israel and the Sunni-majority states—would entirely abandon decades of work to develop a nuclear energy industry. But it would also be unwise not to test the proposition that the right combination of incentives and disincentives could lead different Iranian leaders to accept meaningful limits and effective monitoring of that industry. Pyongyang made a different choice and it is now one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world. Tehran, or more realistically, the Iranian people, might look at that precedent and decide that they prefer a different future.
Another key difference is that a military option to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb remains viable as a last resort. In North Korea, military preemption has long been precluded by the strategic reality that most of the South Korean population, including the capital city of Seoul, lies within range of thousands of North Korean rockets, and all of North Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea, oppose military action to prevent proliferation. A preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program would of course be costly and problematic as well, but given the costs and consequences of an Iranian nuclear capability, it remains a real option—one many of Iran’s neighbors would support.
Thus, even though they must understand that a military option for Iran is far from ideal, the United States and its allies need to keep the option viable. That means maintaining and further developing capabilities such as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the 30,000-pound bomb capable of destroying underground bunkers, preserving the declaratory policy that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and deploying effective missile defenses in Israel and the Gulf states to ensure that their capitals are not held hostage by Iran in the same way that Seoul is by North Korea.
Tehran might look at Pyongyang's precedent and decide that it prefers a different future.
A final difference is that although North Korea has now become a nuclear-weapons state armed with long-range missiles, there is still time with Iran. Even those leaders in Washington and the Middle East who opposed the nuclear deal with Iran should acknowledge that it has, at least for now, stopped Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and they should use that time wisely. Washington should accept the conclusions of the International Atomic Energy Agency and others that Iran is complying with the agreement and continue to provide the periodic extensions of sanctions waivers necessary to keep the agreement alive. A unilateral decision by the Trump administration to declare Iran in noncompliance, or to provoke an artificial crisis over inspections, as some in the administration are reportedly planning, would only serve to isolate the United States and give Iran a pretext to resume its nuclear activities.
Instead, the United States and other international actors should take advantage of the time bought by the nuclear deal to start planning for the possibility that Iran will forego its opportunity to reassure the international community and instead seek to follow the North Korean script. The United States should launch an honest strategic dialogue with all its international partners about how to verify and enforce the Iran nuclear deal while it remains in place, as well as what to do if Iran violates it now or in the future.
The nuclear deal was designed to give Iran the opportunity over 10 to 15 years to demonstrate that its nuclear energy program is exclusively peaceful. If at the time the restrictions are lifted, Iran remains a major state-sponsor of terrorism unwilling to live in peace with its neighbors and has failed to provide assurance that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon, the United States and its partners in the region and around the world will have to decide then how to deal with Iran—a discussion they would do well to initiate already today.
North Korea has always had an ally, China, that is unwilling to punish its nuclear transgressions for fear of precipitating a regime collapse and losing a proxy. Iran has, and should have, no such protector. If it fails to use the time bought by the nuclear deal to reassure the world that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” the world’s major powers should agree that all options remain on the table, including a military option and a return to the sanctions that led Iran to negotiate in the first place.
It would be naive to deny the troubling similarities between the cases of North Korea and Iran. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the differences. If the leaders of the United States and its Middle Eastern partners draw the right lessons from the North Korean experience, they have a chance to avoid repeating it.