Iran vs. N. Korea: Not all enemies are equal

L - R) Japan's chief negotiator Kenichir
Japan's chief negotiator Kenichiro Sasae, South Korea 's Chun Yung-woo, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, China's envoy Wu Dawei, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill and Russia's Alexander Losyukov hold hands before the closing ceremony of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme on February 13, 2007 in Beijing, China. Andrew Wong / AFP - Getty Images file
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Last week we had news that North Korea had agreed to stop producing plutonium in exchange for fuel oil and electricity. About a week ago, the talks had almost broken down completely when the negotiators for Kim Jong Il insisted on monstrously huge up-front shipments of fuel oil—millions of tons—before they would shut down their nuclear facilities. But just a day later, both we and the North Koreans made concessions, and we had a deal.

Meanwhile, the lunatic regime in Iran continues to provoke, to hurl invective and to resist efforts to constrain its development of fissile material. Nor does Iran have any intention to stop its WMD program, to react positively to threats and sanctions, or to submit to any form of international authority.

Why do we seem to be making some progress with one maniac and not with the other?

Well, for one thing, the objectives of the two countries are completely different.

North Korea, reeling under the weight of 61 years of despotic totalitarianism, is an economic mess. More than 30 percent of its meager gross domestic product is spent on its military establishment, ten times more than in the United States, but North Korea’s armed force is only slightly smaller than ours. With much of the country’s food and fuel reserved for the army, it’s no surprise that civilian suffering among North Koreans is acute and starvation a common occurrence. North Korea has no resources and no hope. It may be run by a paranoid oligarchy, but its goal is survival, not hegemony.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to the media after delivering his budget bill to the parliament, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007. Ahmadinejad on Sunday defended his economic policies from sharp recent domestic criticism and said U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed in December would never deter the country from pursuing its nuclear program. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)Vahid Salemi / AP

Even though it its economy is also poorly managed, Iran has lots of oil, and it is propelled by a messianic vision and the objective of ruling the Muslim world. Furthermore, it has been emboldened by our inability to get the job done in Iraq. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his crew have been watching us fail to deploy sufficient forces and have concluded that we are a paper tiger and not serious about projecting our power.

In addition, it’s important to note that the deal in North Korea was the result of cooperation among the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. We all have a common interest in putting a stop to the North Korean threat, and the powers in the region were highly motivated to get it done.

There’s no such agreement about Iran because, among other things, some of those countries have interests in Iran. Russia has more than 400 advisors there, China sold Iran the uranium hexafluoride being distilled to produce enriched uranium, and they both want access to Iran’s oil. How about our allies in Europe? No way. They have large, unassimilated and restive Muslim populations and have been distancing themselves from American leadership since 2003.

To be sure, the deal with North Korea may still unravel, and there are other Korean weapons developments that we want ended. And Iran isn’t an unstoppable adversary: it suffers from poor economic planning, there is some internal dissent, and we may yet engineer meaningful sanctions.

But anyone who thinks that the Korean deal is a template for an Iranian deal is ignoring one painful fact: In the Middle East, we’re pretty much on our own.