The North Korea-ification of Iran

How the Islamic Republic and its many antagonists perpetuate a stand-off that's bad for everyone and nobody wants

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Iranian army cadets parade in Tehran as part of a graduation ceremony / AP

On a cool, clear day in the fall of 2010, about 200 people living on the quiet suburban island of Yeonpyeong, many of them families, fled for their lives. Yeonpyeong lies in the Yellow Sea in a small disputed region that both North and South Korea claim falls within their border. South Korea has long held the island, but on November 23, 2010, North Korea sent artillery shells raining onto its most densely populated areas without apparent warning or provocation. Only two people were killed, but more were wounded and South Korea's 50 million people had to once again confront the fear of a second Korean War.

The incident was a symptom and a reminder of North Korea's extreme belligerence and isolation, a combination that has proven as deadly as it is resilient. Global efforts to engage or open North Korea have not only failed but often gave Kim Jong Il added time or leverage to worsen his government's bad behavior. Attempts to punish North Korea with sanctions only seem to further entrench the isolationist regime. South Korea's occasional show of military might has neither deterred nor dissuaded Pyongyang; when North Korea again shelled the disputed territory this August, South Korea returned fire, something that likely seemed like a rational response but only made conflict more likely. As Reuters' Jack Kim put it, "both Koreas regularly conduct exercises near their disputed maritime border, raising the risk of a miscalculation by either side which could ignite a wider war."

It's hard to imagine that Iran's relations with the outside world could possibly get as bad as North Korea's, but Tehran has managed to provoke in new and exasperating ways this week. It threatened to forcefully close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil supply passes, announced that it would kick off a new uranium enrichment site, and sentenced an Iranian-American to death for "spying." Tehran's belligerence has brought it only pain: the European Union is moving toward an all-out oil embargo and even the major Asian economies, Iran's last real customers, are looking to buy less Iranian energy.

Just was with North Korea, nobody is coming out ahead in the great Iran-Earth stand-off. Everyone is worse-off economically for the slow shut-down of Iranian energy. Everyone is less safe, whether they are within or without Iran's borders, as Iran and the West parry threats and provocations. The region and the world are less predictable, more dangerous places as a result. And yet neither Iran nor its challengers are changing course. For every Iranian act of defiance, there is an American punishment; for every American pressure, there is an Iranian retaliation.

With perhaps two exceptions -- Iran's brief outreach to the West in the late 1990s under President Mohammed Khatami and America's brief outreach to Iran in 2009 under Obama -- both Iran and its antagonists have been stuck in a stand-off that benefits neither side. Some American liberals see too-hawkish U.S. policy as the cause, some American conservatives blame Iranian leaders for being the aggressors; both sides share a concern that either Washington or Tehran is behaving irrationally. (It's possible that Iran's behavior is some manifestation of political in-fighting, of senior leaders trying create circumstances that will favor them or their part of the government, but even that would help whoever was responsible only in marginal terms but hurt them in absolute terms.) As for North Korea, nearly all Americans viewed Kim Jong Il as a madman, though he was far shrewder than we give him credit for.

The end result of U.S.-Iran relations, certainly, is irrational, even crazy. But are the individual people within that relationship really nuts themselves, or are they just conforming to incentives? Iran has been manipulated by outside powers for centuries and fears (wrongly, but not unreasonably) that the U.S. will try to make Tehran its puppet; American actions against Tehran confirm their suspicions and incentivize Iranian leaders to prepare for the worst, maybe even by moving toward the ability to create a nuclear weapon. The U.S., for its part, wants above all to end global nuclear proliferation, especially among unfriendly governments, and sees punishing Tehran for the slightest nuclear movement as worth the risk.

The war-of-words over the Strait of Hormuz is yet another case of how sane and rational Americans and Iranians can make for an insane -- and dangerous -- situation. Everybody wants the same thing: the free flow of goods (especially energy) and traffic through this waterway. Both sides fear the same thing: that the other will attempt to control the strait and to wield that control as a weapon. That fear leads to preventative action -- the U.S. sends war ships, Iran threatens to close the strait -- and that preventative action leads to even more threats and retaliations. Meanwhile, little actually happens, but the risk of an unwanted military confrontation gets a little higher. The Strait of Hormuz is not nearly as tense as the Yellow Sea, which has been heavily militarized for decades. But if global confrontations over the strait become normal in the way they have in the Yellow Sea, it's not hard to foresee a day when Yeonpyeong-style incidents become common as well.

Iran's interactions with the rest of the planet are trending closer and closer to the North Korean model, something that everybody wants to avoid but nobody knows how to stop. This doesn't mean that, internally, the Iranian state, though it is brutally repressive, will become anything remotely like the Orwellian, nation-sized gulag on the Korean peninsula. Externally, however, its relationship to the world -- and the world's relationship to it -- is increasingly defined by aggression, threats, and brinksmanship. As Iran becomes more isolated, it will increasingly rely on this behavior as the only tool in its diplomatic toolbox. But every time it uses that tool it will become more isolated, and the cycle will perpetuate.

The world has not yet figured out how to solve a problem like North Korea. Pressure, meant to deter bad behavior, also makes bad behavior more likely by guiding internal decision-making in that direction. Occasional openings for detente are usually missed because both sides mistrust the other too much to go through with it. Meanwhile, the pariah state ensures that forced regime change is as unattractive an option as possible. Outright collapse might just make things worse as bad states are often easier to manage than failed states. So could regime change from within, as new regimes behave aggressively to consolidate power.

Iran is not yet at the point of a North Korea, with which nearly every interaction is one of mistrust and aggression. Iran still has active trade ties and diplomatic relations with much of the world. But its position as a not-quite-total-pariah is shaky. The status quo of "managing" Iranian threats is effective at its immediate goals -- Tehran is weaker than ever and has still not moved decisively toward a nuclear weapon -- but it has done nothing to solve, and may in fact be worsening, the underlying problem of Iran's bitter North Korea-ification.

There's no easy answer to this problem. Many Iran-watchers are hoping that a spontaneous democratic revolution, like the failed 2009 Green Movement, will somehow seize control and peacefully end the international stand-off, but this appears increasingly unlikely. The only obvious solution in which the U.S. could play a role, a mutually cooperative detente, would require the kind of Heruclean diplomacy that occurs maybe once in a generation. Maybe one of these will happen, but for now it appears that we are all locked in a worsening global stand-off from which nobody benefits and which no one seems to be able to stop.