North Korea eases the heat on Iran
- for now By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
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
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
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
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.
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.
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".
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
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
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.
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.
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.