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Drawing Comparisons Between Iran and North Korea

Jack McGowan

As the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) ashes smouldered in the White House Diplomatic Room, and pundits all over the spectrum argued the merits of the Trump Administration’s decision, minds began turning to North Korea. Some decried that Trump had sabotaged any chance of forging a deal with Pyongyang, while others claimed the President had strengthened the US’s negotiation position.

A review of the Iran deal was warranted as certain prohibitions were not permanent, and Iran was at best a less than trustworthy partner. Despite these criticisms, it was highly likely that such was the only deal which Iran would have agreed to. The Iran Agreement took the better part of a decade to negotiate, but only a few years for the US to pull out.

Similarities and differences can be drawn from the circumstances surrounding the highly volatile situations in Iran and North Korea. Both states are deeply motivated, violators of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have proven difficult to reign in. Both states also seek nuclear proliferation as a deterrent for regime survival and in furtherance of their aggressive consolidation of regional power.

The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran deal – despite the lack of a Plan B – coupled with the upcoming US-North Korea summit warrants a further examination of the parallels and discrepancies between the two ever-burgeoning conflicts. How similar are the situations? Additionally, what is the likelihood that a combined US-North Korea delegation can conquer the hurdles that led to the demise of the JCPOA?

Surface Similarities

Both North Korea and Iran have continuously denounced the US and are on the short list of officially recognised state-sponsors of terror. Both are led by non-democratic authoritarian governments and were infamously listed as members of the Axis of Evil in 2002 by the Bush Administration along with Iraq.

Aside from these basic similarities the states and circumstances surrounding any potential nuclear arms deal are fundamentally different. They exist in different regions with diverse security concerns, have differing economics, and fundamental differences on the role of religion in politics.

When comparing the situations, it is often convenient for analysts to highlight the obvious similarities. However, this does a massive disservice to those tasked with the uphill battle of forging a treaty with North Korea. The North Korean state is a true enigma, a self-isolated hermit kingdom. Iran on the other hand is an important regional actor vying for a greater sphere of influence.

Nuclear Capabilities

The most pertinent disparity may the nuclear capability each state possesses. North Korea is believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons, and of possessing the miniaturisation technology enabling them to be attached to long-range Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, while Iran’s capabilities have been limited by the JCPOA. Though Tehran has threatened it would not take long to return to pre-JCPOA capabilities. When negotiations commenced with Iran they did not pose the capability to produce nuclear arms. With North Korea, sitting across the table from the US delegation will be a fully nuclear state, one which has mastered the basics of producing both a conventional nuclear device and a Hydrogen bomb.

North Korea is a state which also possesses a proven propensity to share nuclear technology with anyone willing to pay. With no determinable religious ideology to adhere to, this makes the nuclear threat posed by North Korea potentially wider-reaching and more difficult to determine.

However North Korea is far more backward economically, politically, and with human rights. Unlike in Iran, there is no ”moderate movement” that the US can covertly support. Years of international sanctions have crippled the North Korean economy leaving them with limited – and often illegal – avenues to earn revenue. A deal similar to the JCPOA, that essentially offered economic sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearisation, may not be as appealing to such an isolated nation. The fact that North Korea has already acquired nuclear weapons technology gives them a stronger position than Iran had, which could lead to a comparatively greater set of demands.

The Contents of a Potential Agreement

North Korea also has a history of wilfully breaking nuclear agreements. With the US having stepped back from the 1994 Agreed Framework, based on accusations that North Korea had been cheating on its obligations. Iran publicly denied it had ever pursued nuclear weapons, while North Korea boasted its intention to the world.

Circumstances surrounding negotiations with the respective states are much more nuanced than they are often portrayed. It will be interesting to see how closely any potential North Korean agreement mirrors the JCPOA. There are several questions that remain when envisioning a potential agreement based on the criticisms of, and reasoning for departing the Iran deal.

Firstly, and most pressing, will be the length of any potential agreement. In his address dictating the rationale behind pulling the US out of the JCPOA, President Trump gave insight into what terms Washington may be seeking in a potential nuclear deal with Pyongyang. A major criticism of the JCPOA, often repeated by the Trump administration, was the inclusion of so-called “sunset clauses.” Will negotiators be able to secure a permanent de-nuclearisation pledge from Pyongyang? With all the rhetoric about Iran easily proliferating weapons at the end of the JCPOA, any non-permanent agreement would be a tough sell.

Secondly, coupled with the length of any potential agreement will be questions over inspections. Which agency will be tasked with inspecting nuclear facilities. The IAEA or the US Military? Furthermore, what facilities will inspectors have access to? A constant criticism of the Iran deal was that the IAEA inspectors did not have acres to Iranian military sites. Any potential agreement would seemingly need guarantees that no sites are off limits. Consequently, how often and rapidly would inspectors be able to gain access to sites? The JCPOA was criticised for allowing Iran a 24-day period to respond to inspector requests. Any potential deal would likely not leave such a buffer.

Third, what kind of regulations would be imposed to ensure that this state sponsor of terror is unable to continue funding de-stabilizing efforts around the globe? Regarding the JCPOA, “The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on our end in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity and no limits at all on its other maligned behaviour, including sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.” President Trump specifically mentioned the inability of the JCPOA to stop funding for “sinister activities.”

Fourth, will negotiations lead to a formal congressionally approved treaty or executive agreement? The JCPOA was not a formal treaty, thus it was subject to the whims of the current administration. Is the Trump administration looking for a more permanent solution, or to gain a crowning foreign policy achievement?

Fifth, what will be done about the ballistic missile program that North Korea harbours? The JCPOA is often criticized for failing to make any attempts to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program, something Iran has been unwilling to relent on. The close proximity of two major Asia-Pacific allies in Japan and South Korea to North Korea makes it plausible that the Trump administration would seek to include restrictions in this area.

Finally, what will the US have to concede in achieving a comprehensive agreement? In the case of JCPOA, the US and its fellow signatories offered sanctions relief to Iran. As mentioned earlier it is unlikely this is the only concession Pyongyang will seek. Will they attempt to bargain for a reduction of US troops in South Korea? Will the concessions required to cement a deal be in line with U.S. security interests?


On the surface, it’s easy to compare the nuclear situations with Iran and North Korea. Both are immensely important security concerns for US security in the short to medium term. However, upon further inspection striking differences become clear, and understanding these differences will be paramount to any potential agreement.

The JCPOA took 6-years to negotiate, and with even more questions looming with North Korea, the question arises as to what time-frame for an agreement can be reasonably expected? The final and most important question which emerges, is it even logical to expect an agreement? Where North Korea has shown a propensity for violating international agreements, it seems unreasonable to believe a drastic shift in international policy is inbound, despite recent diplomatic achievements. Rather, any agreement with North Korea will be the result of a long and arduous process and should be met with great scepticism by all parties involved.



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