Iran shows signs of following North Korea’s national security strategy of acquiring nuclear weapons. Understanding how North Korea’s military and diplomatic tactics have played out over the years may very well help predict where Iran is headed.
The North Korean plan was to amass a large conventional military, develop nuclear weapons and stall for years with talks and treaties. How North Korea acquired the atom bomb is still uncertain.
The infamous Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan claims the Kim Jong Il regime bribed senior Pakistani military officials to procure the necessary information. Pakistan denied this and said Khan sold nuclear technology to foreign states, including North Korea, Libya and maybe even Iran.
If both statements are true, or even one of them, the nuclear proliferation out of Pakistan was substantial. Regardless, Khan admitted an illegal nuclear arms network in 2004 while under arrest.
Not everyone thinks North Korea got its weapons from Pakistan. Some hold that North Korean scientists developed the capability themselves, or took advantage of a mixture of external assistance and internal development over the years.
- Lesson: Have many bright and capable nuclear scientists and befriend Pakistan.
In pre-democratic Iraq, Saddam Hussein ceased his nuclear program after 1998 despite a continuing and forceful U.S. military presence. The 1981 Israeli air strike against the Osirak Reactor, continuous U.S. and British air raids, the enforcement of the northern no-fly zone, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield – each reduced Saddam’s defensive position.
North Korea, sanctions notwithstanding, faced no similar military reductions. It retreated within a put everything into the strategic weapon of choice and a military of missiles and manpower. All of this happened in spite of South Korea, the US, and decaying ties with Moscow and Beijing.
Saddam’s Iraq was also surrounded by unfriendly regimes, with an uneasy tie to Syria. But it too had lost most of its foreign support by the early 2000s.
Iran has managed to avoid any severe isolation: Russia helped build the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and is helping to fuel the reactor. It has growing partnerships with Pakistan and China, among many others. More nuclear facilities are spread out through its geography, not including the Parchin military facility. Most importantly, it has not yet faced a harsh military response.
- Lesson: Have nuclear powered allies, more facilities, manpower, missiles, and lots of surface-to-air defenses.
Instead of restrictions, Iran has found ways to have more of everything, including a flexible regional presence and fairly strong connections with the outside world. The country is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which will meet this August, and an observer member of the economic and security organization known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, Russia, and some northern neighbors. The group met just several months ago for their annual Summit and held counterterrorism military urban exercises around that time as well.
It doesn’t hurt to be selling oil to China, Turkey, India, and Pakistan, among others. The Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline is scheduled for 2013.
Nevertheless, Iran’s position is not secure. There are dangers in following the path set out either by Saddam’s Iraq or North Korea. Both economies collapsed from external pressures mixed with unrelenting internal military ambitions. North Korea lacked oil resources, and Iraq eventually ran out of buyers.
Iran is different. It has the world’s 12th largest gross domestic product, the fourth largest oil reserves and the second highest natural gas reserves. All of these, together with a modernizing and diversifying financial sector, might make Iran resistant to external sanctions; especially when the U.S. is exempting countries like China and India, who continue to purchase from Iran among others.
- Lessons: Don’t neglect your economy. Look after the economic well-being of your citizens. Trade and form willing partnerships and networks wherever you can.
Iraq was not only shut down, it was shut out. Before the U.S. invasion, speeches from Saddam fell on deaf ears and sounded increasingly defensive. Today, the U.S. military presence in Central Asia has increased and, depending on your point of view, arguably encircling Iran. US led war games targeting Syria and Iran suggest an enemy that cannot fully commit to engage them both.
On the other hand, Israel is assassinating Iranian scientists, as it did in Saddam’s Iraq before the invasion. That was before the aerial strikes on their nuclear reactor, which many believe are coming soon for Iran.
During all of this, Iran responded with threats and counter threats of terrorism, assassinations, striking capabilities targeting US military bases; attacking Israel, military parades, cyber warfare, war games and missile tests of it’s own. Unlike Iraq, Iran desires to repel an invasion with tactics that mimic external pressures and boasts capabilities it may or may not have.
- Lesson: Fight back with words and back them up with military demonstrations.
The American threats to bomb North Korean reactors at first pushed the regime into peace talks. But diplomacy in the 1990s ultimately failed to pacify North Korean nuclear ambitions – the result of mistrust and failed promises.
Iran has been more cautious. They returned to the negotiating table when they felt U.S. military action might target them around 2003. Since no U.S. or Israeli strikes were ever launched, the Iranians regained their confidence. They were given, what seems, an extra amount of time. Now Iran claims the capability to produce weapons grade enrichment but denies doing so.
Like the North Koreans, the Iranians seem to have continued their attempts towards nuclear armament in spite of peace talks. They have had some nuclear cooperation transactions and a few have hinted that Iran may have even tested a nuclear weapon in North Korea.
- Lesson: Claim your right to nuclear weapons but not your intentions. Wait for the right moment to announce your success or don’t tell anyone at all—keep them guessing, like Israel.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea were two very different brutal dictatorships. Saddam’s was a secular regime modeled after Arab nationalism, Stalinist Russia and the personality of Hitler. Kim created a cult of personality to such a radical degree that he deprived his entire population of any competitive ideologies or religions, modeling the state after some extreme version of Maoist Sino-Communism.
The Iranian government has followed Kim’s model by maintaining a strict theocratic state and recently cracking down on political and public dissent. But it has had to yield to a modernizing economy under quasi-socialist principles of the Revolution.
Unlike Iraq and North Korea, the Iranians have taken nuclear ambitions and made them religious. The direct authority over the Iranian military and the power to declare war rests in the hands of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iran has intentionally mixed religion and nuclear development, as in the underground nuclear facility 20 miles from the holy city of Qom in the mountains at Fordo—a site that was not discovered until 2009.
Maintaining this site is an extremely clever move, easily justified to the public and safe from outside attack. They might believe that Neither Israel nor the Americans would attack the most holy Shi’a location in the world. The close proximity has the added benefit of potentially hiding military stores in the holy city itself.
- Lessons: Center your population around a strong public icon, but educate them in Western science and technology. Associate symbols of divine power with nuclear power and keep strong the image of the Islamic Revolution.
After Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. was leery of invading any other country suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Iran, facing the possibility of foreign invasion, quieted its nuclear program for a while. But we have only sketchy information about when, or how, that program has regained momentum. Intelligence gathering on Iran is something that Israel, the U.S. and others have attempted to do but have not obtained sufficient evidence.
- Lesson: America will not invade another state unless it can prove without a doubt to the American people that that state has a definite nuclear weapons program.
In 2003 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, claiming it would not pursue nuclear weapons. Just a few years later, in 2005, they declared their possession of those weapons. At present, they have even added the prideful phrase “Nuclear-Armed State” to their constitution.
Iran is playing a similar game. They say they are willing to continue negotiations if economic sanctions are dropped. In fact , the sanctions are in place because Iran has not been transparent about its enrichment of up to 90 percent of the material required for nuclear weapons. The Iranian deal currently on the table is about resuming “talks” and not about halting enrichment, which the U.S. and the EU want.
Iranian officials cooperated in most respects with the IAEA under the NPT agreement, but stopped short after what they claim were unreasonable demands. They have not been completely forthright, which has produced alarms and suspicions. The refusal to allow inspections at the Parchin military base is just one of the more recent affronts. Whether there is an Iranian Negev-style enrichment facility is the million-dollar question.
Iran has refused to shut down its nuclear program as a whole. Almost everyone acknowledges that with an active civilian operation and many refinery facilities, it will only be a matter of time before the government could have weapons-grade uranium.
- Lessons: Engage in opportunistic negotiations, use misdirection, stall, and continue building civilian nuclear power. When you have a nuclear weapon, then the enemy will back off.
Where does all of this leave Iran?
Iran does not aim for superiority over the U.S. or its combined allies. The main objectives are to:
1) Maintain the Islamic theocracy
2) Establish superior regional armed forces
3) Cancel out the Israeli military threat and negate its influence
4) Provide a Shi’a position of dominance to Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey
5) Gain greater influence in the region over Iraqi Shi’a; keep Syrian President Assad’s regime in power; maintain a Hezbollah proxy link
6) Form new alliances or partnerships and deny Western access
7) Use rich natural resources, science, technology and industry to rival Saudi Arabia
8) Seek a powerful regional deterrent to the U.S.
Clearly, obtaining nuclear weapons is not the foundation of the Iranian strategic outlook. They are a necessary accompaniment. The real foundation is the Twelver Islamist theocracy and the intent to unite Shi’a everywhere.
The strategic ground right now is not on the battlefield – it is on the diplomatic chess board of stability, legitimacy and finding small edges. Israeli and/or American military strikes on key installations will not resolve Iran’s real long-term objectives.
Short of war with Iran, long-term ideological warfare, or internal revolution, it will be nearly impossible to stop the regime’s engines completely. But a conventional war is still not a good enough option.