The UN Security Council quickly slapped sanctions against North Korea after its brazen nuclear test. Though limited in scope and weak in enforcement, experts say the sanctions were partially intended to send Tehran a message. Yet, as this Backgrounder examines, it remains unclear if North Korea’s test, or the diplomatic fallout it caused, will embolden or deter Iran from pursuing its own nuclear program. Mohsen Sazegara, a U.S.-based Iranian dissident, tells CFR.org the North Korean experience appeals to Tehran’s radical leaders as a model for preventing a U.S. military strike and distracting attention away from Iran’s wretched human rights record. Susan Rice, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says if the sanctions against North Korea are unenforced or watered down further, it will send a negative message to the Iranians. “They must be laughing,” she tells the San Francisco Chronicle. “You can explode a nuclear weapon and only get slapped on the wrist.”
Iran, unlike North Korea, is years away from becoming nuclear-capable. Germany's intelligence chief predicts Tehran will not have nuclear weapons until 2015 (Reuters). Some experts also point out that Iran's activities are not on the same scale as those of North Korea's. "[T]here is no evidence that Iran is proliferating, that it deserves the same punishment as North Korea," Kaveh L. Afrasiabi writes in the Asia Times. Still, Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says Iran has started testing new enrichment equipment and has a second cascade "ready to go" at Natanz that could soon double its uranium-enrichment capacity (NYT). The upshot of this revelation is that Iran is plowing ahead with its nuclear program, undeterred by sanctions against North Korea.
So what happens now? In the coming weeks, the United Nations will likely receive a draft outlining sanctions against Iran (Reuters). Whether this document will call for limited sanctions or strong ones—that is, those targeting Iran’s oil and gas sectors—remains to be seen. But Russia, which enjoys healthy trade ties with Iran, hinted recently that it has no intention of sanctioning Tehran or threatening the use of force. On a recent visit to Moscow, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pressed Russia to relent on the issue of Iran, President Vladimir Putin gave him no reassurances (al-Jazeera).
Russia, experts say, is the linchpin to enforcing compliance from Iran. “China is to North Korea what Russia is to Iran,” says Karim Sadjadpour of the International Crisis Group tells CFR.org. Russia has extensive energy and economic ties there. Both Russia and China have shied away from sanctions and reiterate that diplomacy remains their preferred approach. Americans, however, say diplomacy must be backed up by sticks, including the threat of sanctions.
Some say the window for direct negotiations may have passed. Journalist Christopher de Bellaigue, writing in the New York Review of Books, says the Iranians offered an overture to the Americans in early 2003 and were prepared to make concessions. “Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the Iranian government repeating this sort of offer,” he writes. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, views the Iranian situation differently. “Their isolation is actually quite extraordinary,” he said at a recent CFR meeting, calling Iran the second most isolated country after North Korea. “A year ago today, they seemed to be holding most of the cards. They had walked out on the Europeans and there was no consequence to that action. But since then, we have built this international coalition.”
Yet some analysts say U.S. posturing only hardens Iran’s nationalists. “Iran is not Nazi Germany, an ideological regime with a limitless appetite,” CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. “The Islamic Republic is seeking to emulate China and India, regional powers whose interests and claims have to be taken into consideration in their immediate neighborhood.”