Its summer and we are only belatedly digesting the implications of the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran. In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, William Luers, Thomas Pickering and Jim Walsh —with brief endorsements from Brzezinski and Scowcroft—have offered up the rationale for an engagement approach. Given the sabre-rattling that has characterized the debate on Iran in Washington, we are thankful. But what is striking is how the conditions that make for an opening in Iran do not appear to pertain with respect to North Korea.
Luers, Pickering and Walsh argue that two factors provide an opening for a new approach: the elections; and the fact that the leadership is in trouble both in the Middle East and at home. The two conditions are linked. We have a hard time calibrating other political systems, but Rouhani secured over 50% of the vote—with 70% turnout—and was clearly the most moderate candidate. He has nuclear credentials, is not a holocaust denier and appears to have better relations with the Supreme Leader than Ahmadinejad did. In North Korea we also have had a new beginning, but without a moderate; rather, Kim Jong Un has spent his year and half in office signaling continuity with the past and even ratcheting up the country’s commitment to its nuclear program.
The second factor that might push Iran toward a deal is that it is facing some serious constraints both abroad and at home. Ahmadinejad believed that the Arab Spring would provide a strategic opening for Iran; that presumption is now in serious doubt. In addition, the country’s reliance on oil is ultimately proving an economic minus. Sanctions on Iran have had more bite than they have in North Korea, where a low-level equilibrium is the norm, commercial trade with China continues to buoy the regime, and Beijing has been unwilling to venture into restraints on the commercial trade.
Luers, Pickering and Walsh walk through the downsides of coercive diplomacy—responding to a harder-edge approach outlined by Dennis Ross– and outline the kind of deal they believe could work. In doing so, yet a third difference emerges; while uncertainties are driving the debate on Iran, North Korea has broken out. Coming to an agreement such as the one they suggest—essentially a trade of limits on the extent of enrichment and an agreement not pursue the plutonium track in return for a gradual easing of sanctions—requires much more backtracking from the North Koreans than it does from the Iranians.
The short-term steps to get the ball rolling also seem unlikely to translate easily to the North Korean setting. The authors can propose with a straight face a personal note of congratulations from President Obama on Rouhani’s election and the possibility of a face-to-face meet-and-greet, perhaps at the sidelines of the UN. It is hard to imagine anyone advising the President to be on the same dais with Kim Jong Un.
The final difference is the sense of urgency surrounding the two nuclear problem states. The debate on what to do about Iran is at a crucial point. Arguments for the use of force gained a dangerous legitimacy prior to the elections; among our academic friends, Matthew Kroenig has been peddling this advice in high places for over a year (see his Foreign Affairs piece here; Graham Allison in The Atlantic patiently explains why it is not going to happen). Not seizing the possible opening that Rouhani’s election offers would be a misstep equal to our failure to capitalize on the opportunities provided by the Khatami presidency, and particularly after the invasion of Iraq.
What happens if we fail to engage North Korea? The regime accumulates a couple of nuclear weapons a year and proliferation risks may rise. But a nuclear North Korea has had surprisingly modest effect on the stability of the Korean peninsula and the risks that North Korea would peddle test data or even fissile material are not taken as seriously as they should be. Sadly, its hard to imagine a North Korean version of the Luers, Pickering and Walsh piece that would garner much support in Washington at the moment.