5 Reasons Why The Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux

Global foreign leaders meet to sign the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program CREDIT: AP
Global foreign leaders meet to sign the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program CREDIT: AP

Within hours of the historic interim agreement reached between the international community and Iran to pause its nuclear program, critics launched a campaign to tie the Iranian accord indelibly in the minds of the American people with another of the countries listed in the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech: North Korea. In their view, any deal with Iran that doesn’t fully and immediately dismantle the entirety of Tehran’s nuclear enrichment ability — even if only an interim deal meant to last six months — is akin to the lead-up to Pyongyang testing a nuclear weapon in 2006.

“I think this is a big win, I hate to say it, for Iran,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said on conservative radio Monday, encapsulating the argument skeptics put forward. “I think they’ve taken a step forward in solidifying their position. And I think we’ve seen this play out before. This is very, very similar to what the North Koreans did at the end of the Bush presidency, and we’re seeing repeating again the playbook we’ve seen before.” Rubio was referring to the frequent attempts of North Korea’s neighbors, along with the United States, to negotiate an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, signing several agreements to build North Korea less dangerous processing facilities, donate aid, and other confidence-building measures, only to see North Korea test a nuclear device for the third time earlier this year. At present, the Six Party Talks remain frozen and North Korea is increasing its stockpile of weaponry, an outcome that critics fear is in the cards for Iran.

In reality, however, there are several key differences that prevent a direct comparison between the two situations. Here are five:

1. More Inspections, More Intrusiveness, More Cooperation.


The 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea has been raised repeatedly over the years as evidence that Iran can’t be trusted to fulfill any agreement, such as the one reached on Sunday. Unlike in 1994, however, the agreement with Tehran is not just with the U.S. but a number of other world powers, including Russia and China, countries with close ties to Iran. In uniting behind a common position, the so-called P5+1 — Russia, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and U.S. — made it difficult for Iran to play any of the members against each other in adhering to the agreement. The deal also imposes a greatly increased level of intrusiveness from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allowing for daily inspections of Tehran’s centrifuges, up from the current bimonthly visits. Iran has also recently agreed to grant the IAEA access to previously off-limits facilities, including uranium mines and centrifuge production facilities.

2. Sanctions on Iran Are Tougher Than Those on North Korea.

North Korea’s communist economy is designed to be largely self-sufficient — save for the occasional need to import food and luxury goods — with the elites more than willing to sacrifice common citizens, making it difficult for sanctions to have the intended effect. Pyongyang also has the benefit of a Great Power sponsor in China, which has a firm interest in preventing North Korea’s collapse. In contrast, Iran was a near fully integrated member of the international economy prior to the discovery of its nuclear program in the early 2000s. Since then, sanctions both multilateral and unilateral have been layered on Iran, wreaking havoc on its economy and bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Tehran since 2011 has been absorbing a $5 billion per month economic loss on oil sanctions alone, according to a senior Obama administration official. Some sanctions relief was offered in the interim deal, totaling a maximum of about $5 billion, far less than the rest of the embargoes still in place.

3. Tehran and Pyongyang: Different Political Systems.

A large part of the current diplomatic breakthrough is in part because of the momentum seen after the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani earlier this year. In the months after his inauguration, the U.S. and Iran have engaged directly multiple times at the highest levels since 1979. While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini still holds the ultimate decision-making power in Tehran, he has responded to the mandate the Iranian people voted for and granted Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the time and space needed to pursue a deal. No such level of accountability, however small, is in place within North Korea, where the Kim family has ruled with an iron fist since the 1950s.

4. Diplomacy Came Later In The Game With North Korea.

Talks between the world and North Korea only began after the Hermit Kingdom was much further along in the development of its program. When the 1994 deal was inked, North Korea already had a functional heavy water reactor, capable of separating plutonium, and had already produced enough to complete a nuclear weapon. A major part of the interim deal with Iran is the freezing of progress at the heavy water plant at Arak, which will also be able to produce plutonium once it comes online. Uranium, another way to produce a nuclear weapon, has also yet to be enriched in Iran to a point where it can be considered weapons-grade.

5. North Korea Was Determined To Build A Bomb.

A recent Israeli military report concluded that Iran’s leaders have yet to make a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. American intelligence assessments have long backed that view as well. While U.S. intelligence believes that Iran is keeping its options open on whether to make that decision, as early as 1994, Central Intelligence Agency estimates believed that North Korea desired and was working towards a nuclear weapon, a view that did not change over time as seen in the case of Iran.