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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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What can be done

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Despite rising tensions, few experts put military action at the top of the list of solutions in either case. While many believe that a US-backed South Korea could terminate the North Korean regime, it would very likely be at the cost of a Seoul in ruins.

"We're not talking about a war in the Iraqi desert if things did escalate" between the Koreas, says Duke's Mr. Jentleson. "With Seoul so close to the [demilitarized zone], it's really unthinkable."

As for Iran, many analysts believe that military strikes to stop Tehran's nuclear program would have only a negative impact: prompting Iran to expel UN inspectors and move swiftly and secretly toward a nuclear bomb as its only chance of deterrence. It would also infuriate much of the Muslim world.

A place to start is understanding what the other side wants – perhaps more easily done in the case of a "rational" Iran than an unpredictable North Korea. "Iranian leaders want two things," says Sahimi. "First, they want to be sure that Iran will not be attacked, so that their Islamic system will survive – or at least not be toppled by a foreign country. Second, they want the US to recognize Iran, not as another client state [but] as a major power in that part of the world, that has to be given due respect."

From Sahimi's perspective, stopping Iran short of developing a bomb will mean providing security guarantees, specifically from the US, and accepting that Iran will continue to enrich uranium. The "best way" to control the program is through more stringent safeguards, he says, and by changing the political dynamic.

Others say that, as difficult as it may sound, the best course for the future may be a kind of cold war where the international community increases pressures but avoids a new conflict. Containment, deterrence, and – in the case of Iran – increasingly freezing it out of the global trade system it needs.

If there's any solace to take in all this geopolitical antagonism, it's that the West has safely navigated some very real threats in the past. "Other countries have been far more dangerous than Iran and far more irrational than North Korea," says RAND's Dobbins, ticking off "Stalin's USSR and Mao's China." Both were significant and nuclear-armed adversaries with more irrational leaders than those in Iran or possibly even in North Korea, he says.

Jentleson agrees, saying anyone who can recall "a very scary Red China" should consider how the US and China "began finding shared interests in the '70s ... to a point where they are no longer adversaries today."

But he cites another option beyond simply waiting out or isolating an adversary: the Libya model. "We should remember that Libya was the original rogue state, with an unpredictable and mercurial leader who was posing security risks and challenging the international order in some very violent and destabilizing ways," Jentleson says. In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi agreed to a plan to end his country's WMD program and pave the way to exchanging pariah status for international recognition.

"It was really tough and patient diplomacy that got it done," Jentleson says, "and there's no reason to think that it's impossible for either Iran or North Korea to strike a deal."

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?


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