Despite decades of tough sanctions, North Korea has managed to defy the West and build a nuclear bomb. It has even gone as far as conducting nuclear tests on numerous occasions while threatening war. Besides being troubling in its own right, the West's inability to stop North Korea through sanctions and diplomacy could send the message to Iran that it too can defy the West. In fact, a number of Western commentators and political leaders have warned in recent weeks that North Korea's experience could embolden Iran.
The North Korean regime has undoubtedly managed to defy the international community, however, this does not mean that Tehran could do the same.
In fact, if we look closer at the major differences between the economies and power structures of both countries, we could reach the opposite conclusion: that North Korea's recent experience could in fact deter Iran from making and testing a nuclear weapon.
One of the most important factors which could bring Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to such a conclusion is the fact that developing and testing nuclear weapons has not removed or reduced sanctions against the North Korean regime. In fact, these actions have brought additional sanctions.
The same would almost undoubtedly happen if Iran finally decides to build a nuclear weapon.
Although the North Korean regime may be able to withstand open-ended sanctions and isolation, the same cannot be said about Iran, which is much more sensitive to sanctions. Should sanctions continue and potentially be strengthened, they could even turn into an existential threat for the regime. As Iran's post-1979 revolution history has shown, the Iranian regime is ultimately able to live without a bomb; it can't live without a functioning economy. And there is nothing more important to Iran's supreme leader than the survival of his regime.
One of the main factors that makes the Iranian regime more sensitive to sanctions than the North Korean regime is the difference between their power structures.
In the Iranian regime, after the top two layers of power which consist of the supreme leader and the IRGC, lower levels are more factional and divided. As the recent public dispute between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani showed, these disputes can be very public. A functioning economy is essential to buy the loyalty of the different factions within the political elite, which the regime needs to do to legitimize its power base. Should the economy collapse, we are not only likely to see more political infighting but Khamenei could even lose the support of the IRGC, which today, more than ever, is a business entity. Last but not least, should Iran's economy collapse, the security apparatus of the regime may not be able to withstand another uprising. This is a danger which Ayatollah Khamenei will not tolerate.
North Korea's power structure is different. Its supreme leader enjoys a mythical God-like status and far greater authority than even Iran’s supreme leader. Similarly, the North Korean regime— while not a pure totalitarian state anymore— is not nearly as factionalized as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the kind of public displays of elite infighting that have taken place in Tehran in recent weeks would be unthinkable inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
This efficient streamlining of power has enabled the North Korean regime to create one of the most centralized and brutal regimes in the world. Not only has it cut its people off almost entirely from the outside world, but it runs what many consider mass concentration camps that hold an estimated 200,000 people. Some of these camps have been compared to “Hitler's Auschwitz,” with former prisoners describing the regime’s use of these camps as a “Holocaust in progress.” However oppressive the Iranian regime may be, its level of brutality does not compare to the North Korean regime.
The differences in the North Korean and Iranian political structures also extends into the economic sphere, with Iran’s economy being far more dependent on exports and imports than that of North Korea. For example, in 2011, the last year that data is available, Pyongyang exports amounted to a mere US$4.707 billion, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). During the same year the CIA estimates that Iran's exports totaled US$109.5 billion.
The same trend is visible with imports. In 2011 North Korea's imports equaled around US$4 billion whereas Iran's imports were more than 18 times higher at US$74.41 billion. The fact that Iran's economy is more reliant on international trade means that continuous, open–ended sanctions could have a far bigger impact on its stability than that of North Korea.
Moreover, Iran lacks the type of great power patron that North Korea enjoys in China. Thus, even as it has acquiesced to harsh U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran for years, Beijing refused to agree to any meaningful sanctions against Pyongyang before it acquired nuclear weapons. Beijing has also protected North Korea from UN retaliation for its non-nuclear aggression like the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In any case, China’s enforcement of the sanctions it has agreed to remains suspect, and it continues to provide Pyongyang with large amounts of aid and economic opportunities.
Iran does not enjoy a comparable relationship with any veto-wielding permanent UNSC members, and can therefore expect far greater fallout from a nuclear test than Pyongyang has been subject to thus far.
Looking at the drawbacks of the North Korean model may compel some Iranian decision makers to choose another option, namely the “Japanese model.” In this scenario Iran, like Japan, would become a “threshold state” by amassing large stockpiles of enriched uranium and military technology like missiles. This would allow Tehran to make a deliverable bomb in short-order, if and when it decides to do so.
Significant progress could be made towards this end without forcing Iran to become the second state after North Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In fact, some Iranian policymakers have flouted the idea of building nuclear submarines which require uranium enriched to 90 percent, the same levels used in nuclear weapons. In essence, this model would enable Iran to have the best of both worlds: it would enjoy nuclear power status without having to endure the additional sanctions and isolation that building and testing an actual nuclear weapon would provoke. Furthermore, this model would allow Iran to remain in compliance with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s verbal fatwa (religious decree) prohibiting nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately for Iran, even if it follows the Japanese option it would continue to endure the current sanctions regime for the foreseeable future, and indeed these sanctions would likely be strengthened over time. Although less controversial, the West would find an Iran wiith a latent nuclear capability unacceptable.
In sum, Iran would do well to ignore Northeast Asia altogether in terms of finding inspiration for its nuclear trajectory.