Worry More About Iran Than North Korea

North Korea is unlikely to trigger a regional war. Iran just might — and nuclear weapons would make such a conflict catastrophic.

An Iranian woman walks by a mural of the Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the former American embassy in Tehran, June 27, 2006
An Iranian woman walks by a mural of the Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the former American embassy in Tehran, June 27, 2006 (Pooyan Tabatabaei)

North Korea’s nuclear program is more advanced than Iran’s yet it is not the one that should keep Americans up at night, argues Adam Garfinkle, a foreign-policy expert.

President Donald Trump has threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea continues to provoke the United States.

Garfinkle doesn’t share his sense of alarm.

North Korea

He points out:

  • North Korea possesses no interesting economic resources.
  • It is not enmeshed in an active security competition with near equals in power, because in Northeast Asia there are no near-equals: China and Russia are huge; Japan and South Korea are far wealthier and more capable.
  • North Korea is not trying to project power directly or via proxies into its region, because it can’t.
  • It does not purport to export an ideology or belief system, for its wack-a-doo juche doctrine, whatever else it is, focuses relentlessly on self-reliance.

Iran

By contrast:

  • Iran has oil and gas, lots of it.
  • It is enmeshed in an active security competition with many near-equals in power, including Turkey and the Saudi-led alliance of Gulf states. This competition could trigger a regional war, which would affect the availability, price and security of Middle Eastern oil and gas.
  • Iran is projecting its influence into the wider region, directly and very much via proxies, including Hezbollah and Shia militias in Iraq.
  • It is the front of an evangelizing belief system: Shia Islam in its revolutionary politicized form.

Deterrence

These differences matter. Deterrence — the threat of nuclear retaliation — is likely to restrain North Korea but could be less convincing to Iran.

If the 2015 nuclear deal falls apart, other countries in the region may seek atomic weapons of their own. The promise of American support for undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia’s in the event of a nuclear war might be less credible than similar vows of support for European allies. That could lead to one side or the other pushing too far.

And that makes Donald Trump’s determination to kill the Iran deal, which, if nothing else, has prevented the country from going nuclear, so disconcerting.