“Iran is a more open and dynamic society than North Korea. It has an unpopular Government, an educated middle class eager to join the world, which makes the regime more susceptible to pressure and incentives. By the time the current restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire, a decade from now, Tehran will be under different leadership, with which more constructive dialogue might be possible”.
Across the Middle East, the question arises whether Washington’s apparent willingness to live with North Korean nuclear weapons --even when they can reach the US-- foreshadows what is to come in Iran. Around the region --in Israel and the Gulf states-- they fear they are watching a movie play out in East Asia that will soon be screened at home. In 1994, Bill Clinton announced an “Agreed Framework” to “freeze and then dismantle” the North’s nuclear program, promising that “South Korea and our other allies will be better protected,” and “the United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea”. But Pyongyang cheated, the deal collapsed, and, within a decade, North Korea was back with the bomb. When, in January 2017, North Korea tested a long-range ballistic missile, Trump boasted on Twitter that “It won’t happen!” and later he sent “an armada” to the region. But all indications are that the US response will be no more effective than before. With this track record, leaders and publics across the Middle East wonder if US efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb will be more successful. But there are key differences. There is still time to prevent Iran from following in North Korea’s footsteps. Pyongyang made a different choice [rather than negotiate] and it is now one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world. Tehran, or the Iranian people, might look at that precedent and decide they prefer a different future. A key difference: a military option is viable as a last resort. Even though a military option for Iran is far from ideal, the US needs to keep the option viable. A preemptive strike would be costly but remains a real option—one many of Iran’s neighbors would support. Even those who opposed the nuclear deal with Iran should acknowledge it has stopped Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and they should use that time wisely. The nuclear deal was designed to give Iran the opportunity over 10 to 15 years to demonstrate that its nuclear energy program is exclusively peaceful.