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North Korea and Iran: How the two states test US diplomacy

North Korea is seen as an unpredictable 'spoiled child.' Iran is seen as a rational but aggressive nation. Each have nuclear programs, but pose unique problems for US security.

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Most significant, the two have nuclear programs that risk destabilizing their regions and threaten an already fragile global nonproliferation regime.

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"Both are countries that tend to have foreign policies or exhibit international behavior that is a source of concern and friction with the international community, and both are pursuing nuclear weapons and policies that bring them into conflict with the US and America's allies," says James Dobbins, a former US diplomat who is now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "There are a number of countries out there with one or the other of these factors, and they are less of a concern. It's the combination of the two that really makes North Korea and Iran stand out."

It is these characteristics that make North Korea and Iran "rogue states," a term Mr. Dobbins says is fair because it "aptly depicts an unwillingness to comply with broadly accepted standards of international behavior and respect for human rights."

But others say such labeling is an oversimplification of two very different challenges that could make solving them more difficult. "It creates barriers to understanding rather than facilitating understanding and therefore a way forward," says Andrew Bacevich, an international-relations expert at Boston University.

To begin with, Mr. Bacevich joins other analysts who focus on what they consider the overriding difference between the two countries. Iran, despite the fiery rhetoric of its mercurial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is seen as rational and even cautious, whereas North Korea is seen as utterly unpredictable. This makes Pyongyang more dangerous, at least in the short term.

Iran certainly has internal political challenges – its economy is flagging, in part under pressure of tightened international sanctions, and the Revolutionary Guard force is playing a growing role in both economic and political affairs. It is also making substantial progress on missile development, along with its nuclear program. But it doesn't represent the imminent security threat of North Korea, say many analysts.

"It's a different kind of challenge," says Bruce Jentleson, a State Department consultant and professor of public policy and political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "With North Korea, it's day by day. You don't know what surprise they might present, and the concern is about a rapid escalation of military action back and forth.

"With Iran it's a different kind of time frame," he adds. "There's not as much concern that Iran will take aggressive action against us, or Israel, or anyone else in the short term."

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