The parallels between Iran and North Korea would seem to riff off the same West-rattling script: start a nuclear program, test some long-range missiles, demand international respect.
But the latest mirror moment for the two nations — nabbing Americans accused of straying across the border — shows that the symmetry goes only so far.
The type of star-power mission by former President Bill Clinton this week to free two U.S. journalists is far less likely — but perhaps not impossible — to try to aid three Americans detained by Iranian authorities last week after allegedly wandering over the frontier during a hike in northern Iraq.
The differences, analysts say, include the complexities of dealing with Iran's mix of ruling clerics, elected politicos and military commanders, rather than a one-stop strongman such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il.
And the timing couldn't be more difficult. The meltdown after June's disputed election has left Iran's leadership embattled and alleging that foreign "enemies" — read: the United States and its allies — are behind the nation's worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Iran is far more complicated politically for this kind of outside-the-government mercy mission," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. "In North Korea, you have a one-man show. In Iran, you have to deal with the entire system, not just one man."
Personal appeal may work in Iran, too
That doesn't mean Iran would necessarily snub a personal appeal from a big-name envoy, he added.
"There's always room for beyond-the-state diplomacy," Abdulla said. "It's part of Iranian and Islamic culture to be amenable to these kind of gestures ... Stuff like this could actually break the ice and move them forward."
Iran is holding the three Americans for illegally entering the country last week and authorities are investigating whether to bring far more serious charges of espionage — also faced by American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi before she was released in May.
The State Department has dismissed any allegations of spying against the three, and a security official in Iraq's Kurdish region, Hakim Qadir Humat Jan, said they were tourists who "simply made a mistake" while trekking in an area where the border is poorly marked.
Americans as bargaining chips
The Americans — freelance journalist Shane Bauer, his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal — have not been shown on Iranian media. State television accused Washington of trying to use their detention to drum up anti-Iranian propaganda.
In North Korea, the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor after being detained in March at a border area while working on a story about human trafficking for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV.
Medical concerns allowed them to remain in a guest house rather than shipped to a labor camp, family members said.
Both cases have different narratives: journalists pursuing a story linked to North Korea compared with the possible innocent blundering of travelers eager to see the world. But they each became convenient fodder in the wider international muscle-flexing of both Tehran's theocracy and Pyongyang's autocracy.
Their playbook is similar: taunt the West with defiance and displays of power, such as North Korea's latest test of a nuclear test device in May or Iran's announcements of its expanding uranium enrichment capabilities, which came in the context of nuclear negotiations.
In July, North Korea fired six ballistic missiles off its eastern coast in another display of its arsenal. Two months earlier, Iran test-fired a new missile with a range of about 1,200 miles, far enough to strike Israel and southeastern Europe.
Their regions are different but their goals also are not far apart — a hunger for full international recognition, including humbling concessions from Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with either country.
"We must play a key role in the management of the world," said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his inauguration speech Wednesday — as riot police outside parliament battled protesters claiming his re-election was secured by massive vote-rigging.
"We will not remain silent," he added. "We will not tolerate disrespect, interference and insults."
Ahmadinejad did not directly mention the three detained Americans, but gave repeated jabs directed at the United States and allies.
In North Korea, Kim apparently used Clinton's mission to dispel rumors that his health was in steep decline. It was also Kim's first meeting with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke a year ago.
The groundwork for the Clinton trip included promises by North Korea that it would not be part of any broader negotiations between the two countries or linked to discussions on North Korea's nuclear program, a U.S. administration officials told reporters in Washington. It raised hopes, however, of opening room for later talks.
"Perhaps they will now be willing to start talking to us" and other nations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said following the release of the two reporters.
'More simple' North Korea v. 'Strategic' Iran
An expert on North Korean affairs, Paik Hak-soon, said Washington's struggles with the small and impoverished totalitarian state is "much more simple" than with powerful and strategic Iran — one of the world's leading oil producers.
"Iran's confrontation with the U.S. is related to Israel, the whole Middle Eastern issue and European interests as well," said Paik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea. "But in the case of North Korea, it's a one-on-one standoff."
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has sharply criticized the Clinton mission as sending a possible message that regimes at odds with America can attract high-level attention through crisis.
"While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release," Bolton wrote in a commentary in The Washington Post.
"Iran and other autocracies are presumably closely watching the scenario in North Korea. With three American hikers freshly in Tehran's captivity, will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance?"
Experts suggest envoy for Iran
Some experts believe the same formula could work in Iran — with the right envoy and the right tone.
"It can't come across as bullying from the United States. This would have to be a nongovernment delegation that is considered separate from the political battles between the U.S. and Iran," said Kivanc Galips Over, editor of the Diplomatic Observer, a Web site and magazine that follows regional affairs from Ankara, Turkey.
"It could be very easy to open dialogue with the proper approach."
It's been done before. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has made forays into Middle East standoffs with some successes, including helping win the release of more than 700 foreign women and children ordered held by Saddam Hussein in 1990 as possible "human shields" after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.