When North Korea surprised the international community by detonating a nuclear device in February, America’s at the time brand new secretary of state, John Kerry, drew a link between Pyongyang and Tehran. Failure to respond decisively to North Korea’s provocation, Kerry warned, risked emboldening Iran. Kerry was suggesting that the impact of the North Korean crisis on Iran would come as a result of the conclusions Tehran might draw about its own nuclear program from closely observing international reactions to North Korea’s. But it is likely that the impact of the North Korean situation on the diplomatic standoff with Iran is more direct than Tehran’s observations from afar. In fact, technical cooperation and military trade between North Korea and Iran make the parallel between the two geographically distant crises more significant.
Tehran is undoubtedly drawing lessons from observing the interplay between North Korea and the West. It cannot escape notice in Tehran, for example, that despite North Korea’s catastrophic economic weakness, the regime in Pyongyang, now in possession of nuclear weapons, is viewed as a serious threat to be handled cautiously, even respectfully, by world powers fearful of triggering a nuclear confrontation. At the same time, the Iranian regime can easily discern that partly as a result of its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has become an international outcast, a place where foreign investors fear to tread, with even more devastating consequences for its crumbling economy.
The practical lessons drawn by Iran of North Korea’s defiance of the international community are undoubtedly an important reason why a successful response to Pyongyang by the West is important, but there is more.