Is Iran studying North Korea's nuclear moves?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There may be no such thing as a North Korea playbook for would-be nuclear proliferators.

But many Western leaders suspect Iran of trying to emulate North Korea's secretive development of nuclear weapons. And as both nations continue to command international attention for their nuclear programs, it's clear the two countries watch each other for "how to" lessons in nuclear diplomacy.

This week, each of these nations has demonstrated its ability to command attention. North Korea said it might disregard past commitments and test-launch a new intercontinental missile, and Iran set a timetable of mid-August for replying to the US and other countries about their package of incentives – later than the US wants.

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For each of the besieged regimes, experts say, an underlying goal is to establish a level of international respect, especially in relations with Washington. To help achieve this, these experts say, the powers of Tehran are no doubt studying the more experienced Kim Jong Il for dos and don'ts, and vice versa.

"Not only do they watch each other, but they may indeed compare notes," says Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Noting that North Korea has supplied Iran with missiles and other technology, he adds, "The North Koreans do have certain on again, off again relations with Iran, so they may do more than just study each other's experiences."

In recent months, North Korea had retreated from the world stage as the spotlight shifted to Iran and international efforts to end its uranium-enrichment program. That changed this week when Pyongyang – miffed by the lack of attention, many analysts say – hinted through diplomatic channels that it might be preparing to test-launch a new intercontinental missile.

The United States had been eyeing North Korea's moves. Earlier this month, it said that satellite photos and other evidence suggested Pyongyang was preparing the test launch. The long-range missile is particularly disconcerting to the US and other countries because a successful one could reach well beyond North Korea's immediate neighborhood – potentially to Hawaii or Alaska.

If nothing else, North Korea's actions got it back to where many analysts say it wants to be – the focus of international attention. At a US-European Union summit in Austria this week, President Bush and European leaders concentrated on North Korea, as well as Iran: They called on Pyongyang not to carry out any destabilizing missile test, while pressing Tehran to respond soon to a package of enticements to suspend its enrichment program.

"Iran has been getting a lot of attention lately, and this may have provoked the North Koreans to take some action, because they don't like to be ignored," says Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They may see this [test launch] as a way to put themselves back on the international agenda."

Of course, North Korea's rumblings about a prospective missile launch may be about more than a desire to rival Iran for attention, Mr. Einhorn says. For one thing, he notes that Pyongyang has not carried out a missile test since the late 1990s, so the regime may be under internal pressures to advance its technology.

"You can only do so much testing on the ground, so I'm sure there are military pressures in North Korea to prove the design of this missile," he says. Besides that, he adds, "You enhance your deterrence by demonstrating your capability."

Pyongyang may also be trying to enhance its leverage with the US and others in stalled six-party talks on its nuclear program. For example, Einhorn says, the North Koreans may think they've found a way, with the threat of a missile launch, to press the US into dropping punitive measures it has successfully imposed on the North's financial operations.

While Einhorn says there is no direct evidence of any kind of learning relationship between Pyongyang and Tehran, he does believe it stands to reason that the two would watch each other.

"I wouldn't be surprised if [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners in the regime say, 'Why do we back down at the last minute, when you look at the North Koreans and see that they make a threat and carry through – and on the whole that has not been a losing approach for them?' "

Others say that Tehran may indeed be following the Pyongyang playbook – but just as much to see what not to do.

"It's hard to believe the Iranians would put themselves in the same category as the North Koreans. There are so many differences between them," says Paul Kerr, a nonproliferation expert at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Iranian officials, including national security adviser Hassan Rohani, have indicated in speeches given in recent years that Tehran has studied the cases of North Korea, Iraq, and Libya. "The suggestion is they have opted for some kind of middle ground," says Mr. Kerr.

Above all, Tehran has a much higher level of diplomatic and economic exchange with the world, he says, and would not aspire to Pyongyang's isolation. And North Korea has nothing like the sea of oil that Iran sits atop.

But what Tehran and Pyongyang certainly have in common, Kerr says, is a preoccupation with the idea that what the US really wants is regime change. And with both countries remaining fixations of the Bush administration, it is likely that the two watch each other for pointers on successfully maneuvering with the US.

Indeed, the US, by turning North Korea's missile-launch preparations into a major international confrontation, may be giving both countries an unintended lesson in how to provoke the US, says Mr. Pollack of the Naval War College.

"What North Korea is up to is not as obscure as people make it out to be, if you realize that what they want most of all is a response from us," he says.

Pollack says the test-launch controversy – which elicited more immediate response from Mr. Bush and other top administration officials than some North Korean actions – reflects the "tool kit" that Pyongyang employs to try to reach its real objective, which is direct talks with the US.

Given Tehran's interest in the same objective, he says Iran is certainly watching Pyongyang's success or failure as it weighs its own response to international entreaties on its nuclear program – which include the promise of talks with the US.

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