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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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Yet China is limited in how much it can rein in Pyongyang's aggressive behavior. One reason is simply that the North Koreans are not easy to deal with. They reflect a national pride that compels them to spurn Chinese demands. The state philosophy of juche, self-reliance, was formulated by Kim Il-sung in the years after the Korean War in reaction to his, and North Korea's, humiliating dependence on China for survival.

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Beijing may not like North Korea to have weapons of mass destruction, but neither does it want the country to reduce its strength significantly. As long as North Korea maintains a formidable military establishment, the Chinese can be sure that no potential enemy will try to overrun North Korea.

North Korea's military establishment is a front line of defense for the Chinese. And as long as they maintain that outlook, Chinese leaders will see no point in blaming North Korea for the sinking of a warship, or in publicly chastising the North for an artillery barrage on hapless civilians.

The roots of Iran's worldview

Iran's psychology of defiance toward the US also runs deep, going back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, and to the US-Iran hostility that has continued every day since. Among the most common slogans chanted on the streets during the toppling of the pro-West shah was "Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic."

In the minds of Iran's revolutionaries, that "independence" meant casting off the imperial influence of Russia, Britain, and finally the US, all of which had at various times over two centuries defined Persia as their playground. The newborn Islamic Republic declared a policy of "Neither East nor West." Unique to Iran, photographs from the cold-war era show Iranians defiling American, Israeli, and Soviet flags.

"You see the footprint of ideology in everything that the Iranian government does," says Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California and a political analyst for the Tehran Bureau website. "They are very self-righteous ... they think they are the model of revolutionary purity and piety."

From the day the Islamic Republic was born, fighting "enemies" in the West has been a pillar of evolutionary belief. Taking on more powerful foes than oneself in the name of God – to follow in the footsteps of the 7th-century "Lord of the Martyrs" Imam Hossein – fits the Shiite Muslim worldview of constant struggle.

Into that mix, two historical events have defined, and still shape, US-Iran enmity. Tehran despises Washington for toppling a popular prime minister in 1953, in the first-ever CIA coup, and for restoring the shah, whose US and Israeli-trained SAVAK intelligence agents ruthlessly enforced control. That event – and the abuses that followed – are kept alive in a prison-turned-museum in Tehran, where wax figure torturers are depicted as American businessmen, in white shirts with rolled-up sleeves, ties, and suspenders. Hundreds of pictures of former inmates line the walls, among them that of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom the shah imprisoned six times.


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