Iran Looks for Lessons in North Korea Confrontation

While diplomats struggle to persuade Tehran to abandon its own nuclear ambitions, Iran watches the confrontation between North Korea and the international community with interest. The Middle Eastern country is hoping to learn from North Korea's nuclear defiance.

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Now, guess who might be learning from the confrontation with North Korea? NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Whatever action is taken by the U.S. and other major powers following North Korea's blast could have consequences thousands of miles away in Iran.

Bruce Bennett is the senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation.

Mr. BRUCE BENNETT (Senior Defense Analyst, Rand Corporation): The Iranians are watching us and our approach to North Korea, and trying to decide what that means in terms of their responses.

NORTHAM: The U.S. has taken a hard line against North Korea's nuclear program over the past few years. And last week, after Pyongyang declared it would carry out a nuclear test, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill said that the U.S., quote, "will not live with a nuclear North Korea" and warned Pyongyang that it could have a future or weapons, but not both.

Lawrence Haas, a visiting senior fellow at Georgetown University, says Washington has made similar threats against Iran, and Iran is now waiting to see if the U.S. follows through on its threats to North Korea.

Mr. LAWRENCE HAAS (Senior Fellow, Georgetown University): And how we react to this situation will go a long way toward determining whether we're able to rein in the Iranian program, or whether, as has been happening recently, the leaders in Iran are just feeling more and more emboldened and feeling less and less worried about any punishment or implications.

NORTHAM: While China, Pyongyang's strongest ally, has said that punitive actions should be taken against North Korea, Beijing makes it clear that that action should be appropriate and prudent, which seems to rule out crippling sanctions.

Ted Galen Carpenter, with the Cato Institute, says China and Russia are even less likely to impose stiff sanctions against Iran because Iran has oil.

Mr. TED GALEN CARPENTER (Cato Institute): Both China and Russia have more economic stakes at risk in Iran than they do in North Korea, by far. Both Moscow and Beijing do not want a confrontational policy toward Iran. They're willing to go along with diluted, relatively symbolic sanctions against Tehran. They are not willing to sign on, apparently, to anything that would be really rigorous.

NORTHAM: But the current situation with North Korea should be a wakeup call for China and Russia, if those countries don't want to face a similar situation with Iran further down the road, says Kurt Campbell, Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Campbell says, the Bush administration is already seriously considering whether to accept a Iranian nuclear weapons program or go to war.

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I think, for folks inside the Bush administration, there will be a lot of pressure - perhaps not in the next couple of months, but in the foreseeable future - to think about options that very likely will involve military force.

NORTHAM: Campbell says a U.S. military strike against North Korea is highly unlikely right now. The administration has made it clear it wants to use diplomacy and nudge China to impose tough sanctions against Pyongyang.

But the Rand Corporation's Bruce Bennett says even tough sanctions against North Korea could embolden Iran further down the road.

Mr. BENNETT: If we push North Korea too much further, they could decide at some point in time that the only option left to them is a military response that could cause immense damage. And if that were what came out of the sanctions, that could then cause a world to be very reluctant to do such sanctions ever again against a country that had fielded nuclear weapons.

NORTHAM: Bennett says the U.S., China and others have to be extremely careful right now about formulating their response towards North Korea, because that response is likely to have consequences far beyond the Korean peninsula.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Here's a sampling of editorial opinion from around the world about the confrontation.

A newspaper in Seoul, writes: the nuclear testing proves that the pro-North Korea Sunshine Policy has failed.

In London, the Guardian writes: the best hope for a way out of this nuclear blind alley must be a more assertive role for Beijing.

And the Los Angeles Times writes that North Korea is a real and present danger. The time for negotiations is over. Now it's about containment and deterrents.

You can read much more by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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