Iran and Korea

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 25 May 2018

While in many ways similar, the Iranian and Korean crises are unlikely to be resolved by Trump deploying the same means and tactics on both

Iran might be geographically remote from North Korea, as well as strategically, historically, culturally and in terms of regional interplay. Yet, they are connected by a single individual: Donald Trump.

During the past year, his administration locked horns with Pyongyang in an intensive bout that ended in a manner radically different to the way it began.

The question now is whether the US experience with Tehran will follow a similar trajectory. Or do the differences in geography, regional theatre and patterns of regional interaction render any comparison unacceptable or even impossible?

Barely had Trump entered the White House than anxieties over the North Korean question soared.

Officials in Washington and elsewhere had long been acutely aware of the sensitivity of this crisis. In fact, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton described it as the most difficult challenge facing the US.

North Korea had resumed its nuclear programme with remarkable energy and resolve. It stepped up its missile development programme, enhancing the range and precision of its missiles, with the intent of possessing the power to strike, if not the western US mainland then at least some US islands in the Pacific.

From time to time, North Korean President Kim Jong-un would toy with Japan by dispatching a missile or two over a Japanese island. While persisting in such activities, North Korea reeled beneath one of the harshest economic sanctions regimes the world has ever seen.

Iran’s situation was better, especially after the nuclear agreement in accordance with which it, theoretically at least, ceased producing nuclear weapons. World markets were opened to it again and it recovered the Iranian assets that had been blocked in Western banks.

This released vast resources which Iran used, like North Korea, to enhance the range and precision of its missiles so that they could reach Israel or European shores, not to mention many Arab countries.

Iran also exploited the agreement in order to expand its regional influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, towards which end it used the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or proxy forces such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and, most recently, the Polisario in North Africa.

In spite of the conclusions of major organisations monitoring Iranian nuclear arms activities, recently leaked information points to a secret Iranian programme to produce such weapons. In all events, the Iranian regime has become a major destabilising factor in the whole Middle East.

Both Pyongyang and Tehran have totalitarian regimes, the former based on communist ideology, the latter on a theocratic one.

Both have pathological relations with underground terrorist, arms smuggling and organised crime networks. Donald Trump, when running for office, made both North Korea and Iran important components of his campaign.

He insisted that there should be no appeasing these regimes as long as they continued to behave in ways that could threaten the US or its allies.

After becoming president, Trump decided to focus on the Korean crisis first. The scene opened with threats and vitriol. He said that the US was ready to go to war to force North Korea to cease the activities that diplomatic avenues had failed to stop before.

His behaviour precipitated a series of regional and international interplays driven by the fear of an impending war. South Korea made overtures to the North while Beijing proved instrumental in softening the stance of the intransigent North Korean president until eventually he agreed to halt his nuclear and missile development programmes.

In return, the North Korean regime survived and was spared the scenarios that befell the Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi regimes in the Middle East.

It is likely that the Korean regime will go the way of the Chinese and Vietnamese governments: politically communist and economically capitalist with the international market as the bridge for conducting relations with other countries in the region and with the West.

Trump did not let the Iranian issue drop after becoming president. He remained strongly opposed to the nuclear agreement with Iran and at the first sign of a solution to the Korean crisis he announced that his country would withdraw from the Iran agreement.

The world was suddenly thrown into confusion. Iran, which had previously said that it would not continue with the deal if the US withdrew, announced that it was ready to negotiate with the European, Chinese and Russian partners to the deal.

This could pave the way to the revision of some of the agreement’s terms and the Iranian regime would be able to ensure its survival, as was the case with the North Korean regime, in exchange for totally relinquishing both its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programmes.

Some cosignatories of the nuclear deal appear ready to open covert or overt channels in order to strike a new deal or to sign protocols that would be annexed to the old agreement, which would serve the same purpose.

These parties are aware that if the situation with Iran spirals out of control, it could wreak disastrous consequences for the Middle East as a whole.

Still, there is a vast difference between the Korean and Iranian crises. The internal dynamics in Iran are not the same as those in Korea. With respect to Tehran, the regime’s domestic anxieties could propel towards a foreign imperialist adventure as a means to cover up failures at home.

Towards this end, it could draw on a number of assets that it has built up over the past few years. It has oil revenues which, thanks to rising prices, enhances its manoeuvrability abroad.

It also has the religious card which it uses to gain new political ground abroad, as occurred during the recent Lebanese and Tunisian elections.

In addition, the “brinksmanship” that worked for Trump in Korea may not work in the case of Iran in view of his stated intent to withdraw from the Middle East and his attitudes in connection to the Palestinian question which remains a main ingredient in the Middle East’s volatile amalgams.

Finally, Washington has to contend with an Iranian-Turkish-Russian bloc that has a complex range of interests in Syria and the Levant. All this demands a different approach than brinksmanship.

Where will this complicated Middle Eastern brew lead? Will it follow the Korean path and end in an Iranian back-down? Or will it move in another direction that opens a new chapter in the amazing history of this region?

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran and Korea

Short link: