Is Iran a Bigger Threat than North Korea?

Why Obama is containing Pyongyang's nuclear program, but threatening war to keep Iran from getting the bomb

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and North Korea's ceremonial Head of State, Kim Yong Nam, review the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Tehran on Sept. 1, 2012

President Barack Obama has committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, by military force if necessary. Last year, he told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff.” But why should anyone believe him when North Korea has gone nuclear with impunity? It’s an uncomfortable question for the Administration, at a particularly bad moment.

North Korea’s third nuclear test, confirmed overnight by its KCNA news agency, comes just as the U.S. is entering a new round of diplomacy with Iran. Talks are scheduled between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency this week; negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers will take place on Feb. 26 in Kazakhstan.

Expectations are low for both talks, but at the least the Administration is hoping to push back further into the future any possible military action against the Iranian nuclear program. A harder line by Tehran in the wake of the North Korean test could move things in the wrong direction.

But current and former Administration officials argue the two situations are different and that Iran would be making a mistake to see strength in North Korea’s defiance of international sanctions and its abandonment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Administration officials admit that they have adopted a policy of containing a nuclear North Korea, even as they say Pyongyang’s program is “unacceptable,” but they say there’s no way they would cave in to containing Iran if Tehran went nuclear. They explain their position like this:

First, containing a nuclear North Korea, as the U.S. contained Russia in the Cold War, is possible. Containing a nuclear Iran is not. Japan and South Korea accept the U.S. nuclear umbrella to protect them, thereby preventing a regional arms race that could lead to nukes all over Asia. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are unlikely to accept U.S. guarantees of protection against a nuclear Iran, so would pursue their own programs.

That would mean a region that is already prone to conflict suddenly awash in nukes. “The risk of having a crisis [in a nuclear Middle East] that moves very quickly, and not controllably, increases geometrically the prospect of a nuclear war,” says a former senior Administration official familiar with Obama’s thinking on Iran.

Second, say former and current Administration officials, the North Korea situation was inherited: North Korea kicked out nuclear watchdogs and tested its first nuclear weapon before Obama came into office, so Pyongyang was already nuclear and was already being contained. Rather than preventing the North from going nuclear, Obama would have had to disarm the country. “Then you’re talking about a rollback strategy,” says another former senior Administration official, which is harder than hitting a program like Iran’s before it has a nuclear weapon stashed away for its defense.

Third, the Administration says, even if it wanted to take out the North Korean nuclear sites, it can’t: it doesn’t know where many of them are. “Nobody has any idea where the North Korean stuff is,” says another former senior Administration official. “There are facilities that can be hit, but in terms of the reprocessed plutonium and aspects of the uranium-enrichment program, we have much less of an idea,” compared with Iran.

Last, the regional politics are different. In the Middle East, Israel has made it clear publicly and privately that it will take military action to stop Iran from going nuclear. If it did, the U.S. likely would be drawn into a war regardless. In Asia, a U.S. attack on North Korea, nominally an ally of China, would be more destabilizing than the current approach of trying to contain Pyongyang, the Administration argues.

Ultimately, the U.S. hopes China will pressure North Korea to stop the pursuit of nuclear weapons. China’s response to North Korea’s test was firm, but noncommittal. The Administration is pursuing further sanctions against the North at the U.N. today, and is looking for Chinese support.

54 comments
guilhermepa
guilhermepa

So far CIA and other Intel agencies have stated that it has not been found any evidence of an ongoing nuclear program for weaponry purposes in Iran. However once again, the war industry needs another billionary contract and since the congress is filled with these maggots, they try their best to convince the world that Iran is the new enemy. However this time, there's a catch: Iran's president is quite popular among the Iranians, and so is he respected before the islam world - a strike against Iran could unleash a huge world war.

s_crawford
s_crawford

Although both have nuclear weapon, China is more willing to step in if N. Korea gets out of line. Iran has proven themselves very defiance to international sanctions. The instability of not only the Middle East but Ahamadinejad leads me to believe that country is a greater threat.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Containment is far from a proven, inexpensive stabilizing solution to the “evil nuclear power” dilemma. The cold war period was not a stable balance of power situation. It was restrained by a “balance of terror” nightmare. To give credence to the nuclear umbrella concept, the US had to base a very large army in Germany for many years at a huge cost. No one even tried to suggest a similar policy to contain China, because no one would accept the cost of having a similar army in SE Asia. And it’s not enough to contain the “bad guys”. The failure to contain Pakistan bred a nuclear India – and no one will argue that this brought stability to the sub-continent.
I’m not sure the US is ready to back its containment rhetoric with a powerful ground force so that no one will doubt that any aggressor will be stop whatever is the price. Just like in cold war Europe. It won’t happen. The Koreans and the Japanese know it, and they will be forced into nuclearization too. Likewise, American promises will not be considered sufficient by the Turks or the Saudis. Without a decisive prevention strategy, you will end up with all the negatives:
Proliferation of nuclear weapons in unstable Muslim non-democracies
A large, expensive, detested presence of US/NATO military force in the ME
A constant shadow of another artificial oil crisis amplified by aggressive Muslim Jingoism.
Sometimes, a little preemptive war is the more attractive prognostication.

RupamSindhuKalita
RupamSindhuKalita

I think Iran has unfairly been at the receiving end of strong threats and sanctions when the North Koreans come into the picture. While the international community led by the US has been trying hard to push back Iran's nuclear ambitions, DPRK has been silently and defiantly doing its work. The threat is the nuclear bomb, its medium is secondary. A nuclear Iran or north Korea could cause equal fatalities in the US and its allies.

branchltd
branchltd

Iran already has 20% enriched (weapons grade) material so it's probably too late to stop them.  Once you have that you can make a weapon quite simply and quickly on the model of the US "tall boy" bomb.  It doesn't require much technology from where they are presently at.  If Obama was going to do something he would have done is before this stage, which means he isn't going to do anything despite having said so.

What most people don't realize is that either North Korea or Iran could successfully attack - and defeat - the United States with a single nuclear bomb, if they built one that produced enough of an electomagnetic pulse (EMP).  If exploded over mid US such a bomb would destroy transportation, communications and power grids over the entire country.  You car, your cell phone, your computer, your TV, your radio, etc., they would all be fired.  The government did a study on this over a decade ago and the conclusions were that such an attack would cause up to 90% fatality in the US, not to mention portions of Canada and Mexico.  They responded by developing means to protect the government.   You are on your own, however, because you are not important to them.

leesaenz
leesaenz

I don't understand what they mean by "contain" them?  Does that mean allowing them to posses nuclear weapons and hoping they won't shoot them at us?

Vinayprasad
Vinayprasad

There are still guys who are freely advocating a military strike on Iran. This post is for those guys. Here are certain consequences that these guys might not have expected. a) The American, European, Chinese, Indian, man on the street will pay $15 for a gallon of gasoline. No end in sight for lowering in prices.  Strategic reserves wont help. Chaos/hyperinflation all over the world. Job losses and bad news around more and more. American Spring. President of the United States will be overthrown. Several political assassinations.  Alternatively the President who is also Commander in Chief will seize power and declare himself as a military dictator. b) A million Osama bin Ladens will spawn from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Saudi and other countries and the Americans will spend the rest of their careers defending themselves/ fighting against these guys which will be futile. Hormuz will permanently get closed by these terrorists, and US will give up guarding Hormuz. Just like America leaving Afghanistan, unable to fight against Taliban. c) The people of Egypt will force close the Suez canal. (the "western allies" will not be able to force open the Suez. America too will be on tenterhooks because China will have expansion program in the Pacific. California has to be defended). Europe will choke due to the Suez closure. Taking a cue from a closed Suez canal, Russia (near monopoly supplier) will hike the price of natural gas exports to Europe by 10 times. They have done this to Ukraine earlier, though the earlier sale price was relatively small. Russia will force Azerbaijan to shut the Baku Tiblisi Ceyhan pipeline which supplies oil/gas to Europe. Europe will be dead. Russia will invade Europe. d) Iran's retaliation will be terrible. Besides inflicting destruction on petroleum assets in the ME, it could shoot down hundreds of enemy countries' passenger civilian airliners in the ME. And this on a long term basis. Even today daily there are over 30 American passenger airliners passing over its airspace. And America has already set the ball rolling in 1988. e) Regarding viability & sustainability of Israel, the reader may judge. Because everything will be blamed on Israel f) Your guess too on the effect of all this on the American economy.

Any talk of war with Iran is A BIG BIG UNASHAMED BLUFF, BOGUS, HUMBUG. It is only promoted by armchair journalists, fraudsters, conmasters, some politicians. Not by the western military. There will be no war with Iran even in the future. Even if Iran develops the bombs. Iran might already have the bombs - from next door Pakistan. Which is why there THERE IS NO ATTACK EVEN TODAY. The world is too much entwined / interdependent in trade and technology. Plus smaller countries like Iran are not afraid of "world powers" anymore. "The west" will learn to live with a nuclear Iran. Lastly, even if by the remotest chance if Israel defies the world and launches an attack, It will be the United States, which will bomb Israeli (yes Israeli) military infrastructure moments before the strike, because this will be the safest way to avoid a world war.

False_Believer
False_Believer

On the other hand: North Korea has real weapons of mass destruction; Iran's are imaginary. The idea that you can just 'take out" Iran's WMD if you will only go to war with them is childishly naive, and the idea that the Middle East is sitting around, waiting for Iran to trigger a regional arms race is inconsistent with the fearmongering expressed in this article. Lastly, the US could decide not to be drawn into a third party war, and then what would you do? Pakistan is a much more credible threat, for those who need such things.

DwightJones
DwightJones

The focus remains land grabbing from Palestinians, an eternal Warsaw ghetto that has lasted 60 years, not 60 days like the original.

Ohiolib
Ohiolib

AIPAC. What else needs said?

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

........Soon 10 countries will form a 10 nation confederacy out of which the anti-christ will arise..........their common denominator will be their hatred of Israel....and persecution of Christians.....Will they hold the world at ransom for their oil?? Ahmadinejad of Iran also proposed forming a new group of 10 or 11 countries to work to end the 18-month Syrian civil war. The Bible says the leader of this 10 nation confederacy will be the anti-christ....

Revelation 17:12-14.......... 12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast..........

Revelation 13:2-3.......2 Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority. 3 And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast.

Revelation 13:4....... 4 So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”

AmeliaWichman
AmeliaWichman

@EmilyNevitt it doesn't say they r gonna bomb us

Ryanhaaa
Ryanhaaa

an economy on the brink, and an army lowered, with a suicide rate among veteran of 22 people per day?you talk about a war with a country 10 

times more powerful than iraq and afghanistan altogether?

a country as big as Alaska with 80 million people?


impossible!!!!!!!

Ryanhaaa
Ryanhaaa

as General Cartwright said, it is unrealistic to expect for an attack on Iran destroy the iranian's "know-how"

iran will do what it has to do periode, if it means war, be it.

iran can put usa knees, by bombing petroleum Saudi sites and of GCC.

but at the end of the day, iran will have a  nuclear capability, and even nuclear weapons if it choice !

NK is not the point, as long as israel has nukes others countries will seek a nuclear option, is that simple.

US has no choice, 

they bomb iran: iran get the bomb anyway

israel bomb iran; iran get the bomb anyway

we let them allone, they get at least the capability.....

s

Saturn500Jared
Saturn500Jared

@TIME Guys, puppies are a bigger threat than North Korea.

olrockcandymtnroustabout
olrockcandymtnroustabout

At this point in time and history, our own republican party is more of a threat than Iran and N. Korea combined.

frankshiraz
frankshiraz

Instead of targeting Iran for the possibility that she might follow North Korea and Israel and weaponize her program, we should create a nuclear-free zone in the entire Middle East, and that includes Israel. Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not put up with Israeli nuclear capabilities without wanting to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Iran is a member of the NPT and under constant IAEA inspection. It is time the international community demanded that Israel would do the same. The only guarantee for longterm security in the Middle East is a regional nuclear-free zone, and the only guarantee for longterm security of the world is the elimination of all nuclear weapons or putting them under international inspection.

YngwieFM
YngwieFM

So I guess it was a mistake to overthrow the Democratic govt of Iran in the 50's?

rizvibash786
rizvibash786

@TIME Let's add #USA and #Israel to the list, shall we? #Zionism #Threat #World Peace

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

"Is Iran a Bigger Threat Than North Korea?"

Yes.  North Korea is the whiny world's biggest crybaby trying to get permission to sit that the big-boy table.  Iran is a nation with an actual economy, an actual educated populace, an actual culture, and an actual future.  Nukes or no nukes, they deserve some respect.  North Korea can't hit space with a rocket pointed straight up.  No, seriously.

Here's the problem with a discussion about nuclear North Korea: they have no delivery system.  The closest they have are artillery shells (which would have to be resized for the nukes - kinda hard to do when you don't have an economy) or bombers (with no fuel to speak of) or walking across the border (the mined border with a gigantic army facing you).  Add in that North Korea exists so long as China tolerates them while Iran exists so long as Persians live, the answer to your question is quite trivial.

carlosmarior
carlosmarior

@TIME they both are a dangerus theat...have to stop them...

circuitcity1
circuitcity1

@TIME isreal is threat to whole world not korea or iran government not people

ingrasam
ingrasam

@TIME Our own government is the biggest threat. #Obama

Castle_Kearsley
Castle_Kearsley

@time Iran's conventional forces are larger and more advanced than North Korea's. North Korea's leadership much more isolated & insecure.

DOSEDUP_T
DOSEDUP_T

@NigelBigMeech LOL soon read that

_Perspectives_
_Perspectives_

@TIME North Korea is a bigger threat. They have expressed their desire to attack since the Korean War. When they can they will.

jdtweet_
jdtweet_

@TIME no mater how great or small..all threats should be taken seriously.

arun_kumar_13
arun_kumar_13

@TIME as per polls around the world Israel and US are reasons for instability . Sad but that's what data shows

EuoeaoK
EuoeaoK

@TIME I can see the argument, "Hey N. Korea, mines bigger than yours."

w_nicht
w_nicht

@TIME have you got the netanyahu virus?

lifesmandarin
lifesmandarin

@TIME Now you can pen an article imagining the scenario they both nuke the U.S.A.

j.villain1
j.villain1

@Ohiolib  

Agreed. We have seen report after report that Iran is NOT developing a nuclear weapon. That is what the IAEA says, that is what all of the  US agencies say, that is what the independent scientists that have examined the evidence say. But Israel really wants to bomb Iran so that is what the US will focus on for the next 4 years.

Ohiolib
Ohiolib

@PlumbLine And Leviticus says that you can't wear clothes of mixed fibers. Let me know when you sober up. 

EmilyNevitt
EmilyNevitt

@AmeliaWichman i know. their just a threat.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@frankshiraz 

Oh please.  The worst kept secret in the Middle East is that Israel has nukes.  Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia haven't heavily pursued nuclear programs despite knowing full well that this is a fact.

Dachman
Dachman

How is Israel such a big threat, what wars are they in?

Dachman
Dachman

Ok that sounds good lets make policy based upon polling data...What are you talking about?

sammyboy8408
sammyboy8408

@forgottenlord @frankshiraz 

but libya, iraq and iran have pursued nukes because of isreal. You cant expect Iran to put its nuke program away if isreal has nukes. And you cant expect the saudis not to chase nukes if iran has nukes. If your afraid the region is gonna be awash with nukes, creat a nuclear free zone. Simple. Isrealis are delusional if they think they cant get iran to walk away from nukes

frankshiraz
frankshiraz

@Dachman How many wars is Iran in? Iran has not started a war for many centuries, but was attacked by Saddam Hussein with the West's backing. Israel has attacked every neighbor as well as colonizing Palestine.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@sammyboy8408

Actually, I do expect Iran to put their nuclear program away because I don't seriously believe that Iran's nuclear program is about the bomb or about Israel.  Most serious leaders in this world (and I count Iran but neither Gaddafi nor Hussein - nor the Kims) understand that a nuclear bomb is an important defensive weapon and a useless offensive weapon.  Sure, it'll kill a lot of people, but the next nuke to go off will be the end of the one who fired it.  Israel isn't about to nuke Iran and Iran isn't really afraid of Israel having nuclear capabilities.  It might like to have the defensive capabilities that a nuke provides, but that's quite irrelevant to an Israeli bomb - after all, in the eyes of Iran, nuclear America is the one who brings the real firepower behind Israel.

I'm not saying Israel deserves to have nukes, I'm just disputing that the domino theory of nukes is real.