The North Korean Playbook Won’t Work With Iran

Hard-liners in Tehran and Washington are both drawing the wrong lessons from diplomacy with Pyongyang — and that could lead to war.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani oversees an April 18 ceremony marking National Army Day in Tehran.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani oversees an April 18 ceremony marking National Army Day in Tehran. (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce whether he will maintain or kill the Iran nuclear deal, most observers have already concluded that he will withdraw from the agreement. Regardless of Trump’s decision, a disturbing trend is emerging: Increasingly, the Trump administration is pursuing a strategy of escalating tensions in the hope of using brinkmanship to strike a better deal with Iran. Those who support this approach argue that it may be preferable to deal with a crisis today rather than in the future, when some of the deal’s key nuclear restrictions have expired and Iran might have a more advanced nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, increasingly loud voices in Iran also favor escalation and seek to use brinkmanship to secure a more favorable deal for themselves. In their view, it is preferable to play hardball with the United States, maintain and secure strong footholds in the region — as Iran has done in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — and accelerate advancement of a nuclear program as leverage before a state of sanctions-induced financial limbo creates more serious damage to the Iranian economy.

The rationale one hears from hard-liners in Washington and Tehran is strikingly similar; both are driven by what they perceive as a current position of strength that could soon evaporate. These perceptions are directly related to each side’s interpretation of the North Korean situation. Trump and his hard-line aides share the view that maximal pressure and escalation softened North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whereas Iranian hard-liners insist that Kim’s advanced nuclear weapons program gave him the leverage he needed to drag a sitting U.S. president to the table.

Trump’s explicit threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea continued for months, and then his rhetoric suddenly shifted to a need for “dialogue.” There are now plans for talks between Trump and Kim, as well as reports of North Korean concessions in advance of the meeting. Trump and new members of his foreign-policy team — including National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — seem to believe that they will be able to achieve similar results with Iran. Intimidation, threats, and tough talk in the case of North Korea have created the illusion that a similar strategy will pay off with Iran, too.

But it is highly unlikely that the strategy of intimidating Iran will play out as the Trump administration hopes. Iran will not offer the same type of grand bargain today that it proposed to the United States during the Iraq War in 2003, when Tehran offered a comprehensive list of concessions on nuclear issues as well as its support for Hezbollah. Iran is now in a much stronger position, due to its regional footholds in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq; its improved international standing thanks to the multilateral nuclear negotiations that led to the 2015 deal; and its strengthened relationship with Russia and China. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, expressed that view clearly in a recent video posted on Twitter: “Bluster or threats won’t get the U.S. a new deal, particularly as it is not honoring the deal it has already made.”

Iranian officials have signaled three possible responses to a U.S. withdrawal from the deal: a letter to the joint commission (made up of the European Union, Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany) that gives other parties 45 days to provide enough guarantees to save the deal; immediate withdrawal from the deal and the resumption of restricted uranium enrichment activities; or the resumption of currently restricted nuclear activities, followed by Iran’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is the escalatory path favored by hard-liners in Iran.

Like the hawks in Washington, the proponents of the third option in Tehran are also using the North Korean example to make their case. They insist that if Iran accelerates its program to build significant nuclear capabilities, or even a bomb, it will gain leverage and be in a much stronger bargaining position for comprehensive concessions from both the United States and regional rivals in the Middle East. This view is based on a risky assumption that Iran can safely cross the nuclear threshold without the United States and Israel launching a military strike first.

Just as U.S. hard-liners have drawn the wrong conclusions from the North Korean case, the inferences that Iranian hawks have made based on the North Korean situation are deeply flawed and dangerous. There are critical differences between North Korea’s nuclear program and Iran’s. For example, North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and declared itself a nuclear-armed state. Iran has publicly claimed that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. And while Tehran may be employing a nuclear hedging strategy of advancing its capabilities without crossing the line to building an actual bomb, it has not yet developed a single nuclear weapon.

The dynamics of crisis management are also drastically different due to North Korea’s relationship with China, the regional superpower in East Asia. China has been a long-standing ally of North Korea and has a vested interest in not jeopardizing its relationship with either Pyongyang or Washington. China is therefore at the heart of strategic calculations in both the United States and North Korea. There is no similar great-power player or broker in the case of Iran, which means there is no mechanism for crisis management if the situation spins out of control.

The regional dynamics Iran and North Korea face are also vastly different, suggesting that Iran would face extremely difficult conditions if it needs to manage any sort of escalation. First, its military assets are in close proximity to U.S. bases and allies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, creating a minefield for misperception and miscalculation should the conflict escalate. Second, Japan and South Korea have long had a deep interest in finding a nonmilitary solution to the North Korean problem and are strongly opposed to a military conflict in the region. By contrast, Iran’s regional rivals seem to be much more welcoming of a U.S. military strike against the country. While North Korea’s neighbors would act as dampeners in the event of an escalating conflict, Iran’s regional opponents may very well pour fuel on the fire, dragging the United States into an unwanted military conflict.

Military action and intervention, particularly in the Middle East, has not been part of Trump’s agenda, even during his presidential campaign. Trump ran on a platform of “America First,” calling on other nations to play a greater role on foreign-policy issues on which the United States has traditionally led. Regional actors are fully aware of Trump’s campaign pledges and seem to be pushing for conflict with Tehran in the hope that the United States will be forced to take charge and confront Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation on April 30, citing intelligence collected by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service on Iran’s past plans to acquire nuclear weapons, was one such example of encouraging escalation by putting the United States on the spot.

In theory, the fact that both Iran and the United States think they are negotiating from positions of strength should increase the prospect of serious and productive talks. Unfortunately, neither side appears to have a clear strategy for carrying out the diplomacy that they imagine will emanate from their brinkmanship. Both sides therefore seem to be barreling toward escalation. The effective collapse of communication channels established between the United States and Iran under President Barack Obama means that such escalation could quickly lead to a military confrontation.

Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She is also an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Twitter: @MahsaRouhi

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