WASHINGTON — Iran's announcement this week that it will resume nuclear fuel research and North Korea's warning that it will snub further nuclear nonproliferation talks because of US actions indicate that this year, like the last, will revolve to a fair degree around actions of the world's pariah nations.
Yet even as countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Burma adopt public positions sure to isolate them further from the rest of the world, many experts say there are rational explanations for what these outcast regimes say and do.
Moreover, experts add, the rise of a powerful friend abroad - China - may serve to encourage pariah states to stand up to international pressure, and even to taunt the global community with more outlandish acts and statements.
"A certain amount of what we hear from these countries' leaders is bluster, but we also have to figure they mean what they say," says Thomas Sanderson of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They believe they are upholding some truth, but it is also how they remain in power."
This motivational mix - ideology and political pragmatism - appears to be true for the reigning global-outcast champs, Iran and North Korea.
How to respond to such countries is not an academic question, experts say, given the gravity of the issues involved - including nuclear proliferation - and the time and energy the US expends on them.
But why would a new leader of a country already under scrutiny act in ways guaranteed to heap scorn on his regime, as did Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he recently depicted the Holocaust as a "fairy tale" and publicly attacked Israel's right to exist?
In part, the Iranian leader may be pursuing a particular view of Iran's role in the Muslim world. Mr. Ahmadinejad subsequently told the national security council of Iran's parliament that reaction to his Holocaust comment had been "positive," according to Iran's state news agency. The report paraphrased the president as saying, "the Islamic world was getting passive and extinguished [on opposing Israel] and needed a shock on the basis of truth."
Internal politics also play a role, says CSIS's Mr. Sanderson. "These people have an external audience, but they also have an internal audience they have to deal with," he says. "Ahmadinejad is trying to isolate those ... who would work with the US and rally support among groups that aren't so enthusiastic about his leadership."
Ahmadinejad is indeed "appealing to his base," says Mark Palmer, vice chairman of Freedom House in Washington. But he is also revealing who he is, and to that extent his pronouncements are "helpful," he says, "because they clarify for us what the regime is about. This is not tactical."
Iran's president is also playing politics with the nuclear issue, knowing that many Iranians see the nuclear program as an expression of nationalist ambitions, analysts say. On Monday, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that next week it will resume "nuclear research" for its "peaceful nuclear energy program," a designation that in the past has covered for experimentation in uranium enrichment. The news placed a question mark over Iran's agreement with European countries to suspend such work and drew a US warning of possible "additional measures to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions."
A similar calculus is at work in North Korea, experts say, where the regime stokes a sense of threat from the outside to further its chief goal: retaining control.
"Real or imagined threats from the US are used by the regime ... to inculcate a kind of siege or bunker mentality in the people," says Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Institute for International Economics.
Ideology and pragmatism factor into Pyongyang's actions as well, Mr. Noland says. The regime's periodic threats to cooperate even less with the outside world - such as Monday's warning to the US about financial sanctions it has imposed - are aimed at a domestic public that has been wriggling under government control.
Videos and tapes of South Korean soap operas have been flooding the country, Noland notes, prompting police to search homes to learn who is watching what. Such moves are evidence that the regime fears losing control of the public, he says.
One US response to pariah provocations has been to draw international attention to them. The State Department publishes a list of countries that violate their citizens' right to religious freedom, for example. That and similar lists uniformly include Iran, North Korea, and Burma.
But such public condemnations may become less effective with the emergence of a global power that often appears on those same lists: China.
"As China emerges as a bigger bankroller and a bigger market, it emboldens these other countries to continue acting the way they do," says Sanderson. "If you look at who backs these regimes," adds Palmer, "time and again it's China." To counter that influence, the US must be more, not less, engaged with the outcasts - specifically their people, says Mr. Palmer.