Responding to Pyongyang With an Eye Toward Tehran
OK, so the axis of evil exists. Let's use it.
Iran may also be skeptical of American diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea. If Tehran believes, as many American experts do, that the United States has not pursued its negotiations with North Korea (the six-party talks) in good faith, it will also doubt the sincerity of American offers to talk with Iranian diplomats. More active American diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean crisis, including a willingness to clearly forswear regime change, could help convince Tehran that talks would be valuable. Drawing Tehran into negotiations will not necessarily end the Iranian nuclear program, especially if the talks are mishandled. (In particular, security guarantees must be on the table if a negotiated settlement with Tehran is to have any chance.) But with all other options appearing unpalatable, and with Iran still several years from the bomb, it would be a shame not to at least try as many tactics as possible.
We should not, however, be too sanguine about the potential for imposing heavy sanctions on North Korea, given the hesitancy on the part of Beijing, and, to a lesser extent, Seoul. Nor should we assume that harsh action against Pyongyang will magically resolve the Iranian showdown. North Korea has just grabbed global attention, but our focus on Northeast Asia cannot come at the expense of a similarly strong effort on Iran, all while we try to manage the mess in Iraq.
The situations in Iran and North Korea are now inextricably linked. Rather than focusing on assigning blame for how we got to where we are now, or on futile attempts to decouple the two challenges, we should embrace the new connections between them. Crafting our response to the North Korean test so that it sends the right signal to Iran would be an excellent first step.
Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at CFR.org.