This post is published in recognition of the UN International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Written by: Kei Zamaninoor, Middle East Correspondent
Since the conclusion of Iran nuclear talks and the formation of the agreement known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), various groups and institutions began campaigning against this deal. These groups have used different arguments to convince the public about the dangers and flaws of JCPOA. Among these arguments was a comparison between this deal and the nuclear deal made by Clinton administration with North Korea which failed to prevent the Southeast Asian country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Of course, Iran and North Korea are completely different cases and these groups, in an apparently purposeful manner, avoid mentioning it. Even though the Bush administration’s role in the failure of the North Korea deal should not be discounted, a comparison, strictly between Iran and North Korea, shows that various factors completely distinguish these two cases from one another. Iran, due its internal dynamics, geopolitics, and economy, has many more incentives to keep its end of the bargain.
North Korea’s China
The Chinese long-standing support of North Korea was indeed a key factor in emboldening Pyongyang to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Without doubt, China would not have been hesitant to directly defend its Korean neighbour in the case of an American offensive. The evidence: the Korean War. There is no indication that would suggest North Korea’s strategic importance has changed for Beijing. This is not to suggest that Chinese leaders support Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, China will continue to ensure that American troops will not be stationed next to its border. For Iran, however, things are different.
Iran, unlike North Korea, does not have the unconditional backing of a superpower. None of its neighbours are powerful or friendly enough to support Iran in case an American strike takes place. Russia and China, also, are not likely to confront the Americans directly. Iran is not China’s North Korea nor is it Russia’s Ukraine. The powers of the eastern bloc will most likely rely only on supplying Iran with weapons and arms, similar to the Vietnam War, in the case of such confrontation.
Due to this, Tehran cannot be as assured as Pyongyang about the US’s unwillingness to exercise any form of military options. This is probably why Iran never attempted to produce nuclear weapons after being called by President Bush a part of the “axis of evil”, completely contrary to what North Koreans did when facing a similar circumstance. It appears that Iran sees its regional hegemony and deterrence in increasing its influence across the Middle East instead of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Geopolitics of the Middle East and the Iranian goal
In recent years, and especially after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has been successful in increasing its influence across the Middle East. So far, such increase has been mainly due to its support of various Shia groups and militias within the region. However, Iran has taken other measures which suggest that its goal is not only to strengthen the so-called Shia crescent but to establish itself as the rightful regional hegemon that can bring stability to the Middle East. Such goal cannot be achieved if the Shia country is dragged into a war with the U.S.
It is no secret that Iran has been supporting its allies in Syria and Iraq against ISIL and other Sunni groups. Iran’s state media has been open about the involvement of IRGC General Qasim Soleimani in supervising, training, and arming Shia militias. What is important, however, is that Iran is justifying its involvement by claiming that these actions are for defeating extremists and terrorists in the region. This is an attempt by Iran to show its goals are aligned with those of the international community.
Furthermore, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has been active in finding a political solution for the Syrian crisis. Some Iranian officials, also, have expressed their readiness to begin negotiations with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the matter. By using its political arm, Iran is displaying itself as the regional power that can bring all sides with different views together and reach a political solution for the existing problems. Regardless of its success, Iran wants to showcase that it has the political willingness and necessary regional influence to be the hegemon of the region. Tehran, however, cannot achieve this goal without ensuring stability at home. An American attack will jeopardize achieving such ambition. If Iran is able to increase its influence, it is due to its internal stability relative to other countries in the region. Tehran’s desire to resolve the nuclear issue was also an attempt to guarantee the continuity of such stability by ending the regime of sanctions that had crippled its economy.
Open country vs. isolated country
Another issue, overlooked by the opponents, is Iran’s need of having economic relations with the world. Unlike North Korea, Iran heavily relies on selling its oil and gas to foreign buyers. North Korea, however, is yet to show any interest in restoring its trade and political relations with the world. It also has complete control over the inflow of information from other countries and the outflow of information from itself. While the North Korean government has used the country’s economic and political isolation to maintain its legitimacy and control over its people, the Iranian government continues to depend on economic relations with other countries. If the Iranian regime ever obtains nuclear weapons, it would have to be prepared for facing sanctions much more severe than the ones imposed before. This would drastically destabilise Iran, especially since its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.
This issue is not limited only to the Iranian economy. Unlike North Korea, Iranians are informed about world affairs and scrutinize their government at a much larger scale. According to the World Bank statistics, 40% of Iranians have access to internet while this rate is 0% for North Korea. Also, one of the main, if not the only, reasons behind the election of Hassan Rouhani as president was his promise of ending this decade-long issue. Such popular movement for a major shift in a state policy is non-existent in North Korea.
Clearly, the dynamics of the Iranian society and economy make it difficult for those in charge to justify undertaking any confrontational strategies against the west. According to a recent poll conducted by the Toronto-based IranPoll, the nuclear deal is supported by 75% of Iranians, making it even harder for the government to violate the agreement. Indeed, compared to North Korea, Iran has “many” more intensives to keep its end of the bargain as it wants to be a stable country with relations with other countries.
A long way remains
It is fair to say that no one can predict the outcome of this deal with full confidence. The JCPOA is a complex package that involves seven different countries, each with their own unique interests. Nonetheless, from an Iranian stand-point, this agreement is a highly beneficial one. Of course, the American side, at some point in the future, might scrap this agreement all together. The rhetoric adopted by all Republican presidential candidates does maintain such scenario a plausible one. But for now, this deal should be embraced as a chance for bringing more stability to an already volatile Middle East and a solution for making the world safer.
Kei Zamaninoor is currently a Master of Global Affairs (MGA) Candidate at Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He previously studied Business Administration at Schulich School of Business, York University. His research interests include international business, international economy, Middle Eastern geopolitics, and Iranian affairs.