Why a deal with Iran may be easier than one with North Korea

KimsNKWalter Clemens, Jr., Harvard associate and Boston University professor, writes that:

A grand bargain with Iran should be far easier to reach than with North Korea. . . . North Koreans and Americans cannot forget their bloody encounters from 1950 to 1953. Iran and the United States, by contrast, have never fought. Their disputes have been less serious than those that drove the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Americans have far more in common with Iranians than with North Koreans. But will this heritage ease the task of negotiating the next steps and living with a more extensive agreement if signed?

. . . 

By Walter Clemens, Jr.

A grand bargain with Iran should be far easier to reach than with North Korea. Iran can forgo nuclear weapons because its geopolitical and economic resources give it a commanding position in its region. North Korea, by contrast, is a speck on the map of East Asia. Apart from coal and some exotic minerals, North Korea's resources offer little to induce foreign investment or trade. Neither country needs fear a foreign attack unless its nuclear weapons development provokes outsiders to mount a preventive war. Unlike Iran, however, North Korea demands to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state.

Sanctions curtail economic growth both in Iran and North Korea, though elites in each country can still smuggle in creature comforts. While leaders in Pyongyang seem to care little if their people go hungry, those in Iran do worry about popular unrest and labor to lift the burden of sanctions. Iran has a large middle class, well-informed about the world, that demands a better quality of life.  A privileged elite exists in Pyongyang along with an emerging commercial sector in several cities, but most North Koreans are both poor and repressed, with only the vaguest ideas of life in China and South Korea.

Another difference is that Americans and Iranians understand one another far better than do Americans and North Koreans. Both English and Persian share Indo-European roots, while Korean has no ties to any Western language. A far larger share of Iran’s people know English than do North Koreans. Many Iranians have relatives in the West. Many have studied abroad.

Most Americans and Iranians, whether Zoroastrian or Muslim, believe that there is one God. Zoroastrianism was the first major monotheistic faith, but it fostered a belief, shared by most Christians, that the power of good must struggle endlessly against evil. Children of the same book as Jews and Christians, Muslims believe in Satan as well as Allah.

Muslims, followed by Jews and Christians, endeavored to learn from the philosophers and scientists of ancient Greece. Europeans acquired the fullest transcriptions of texts by Aristotle and other Greeks from Muslims. For many years Muslims, Jews, and Christians learned from each other in Spain. In time, however, some Islamic authorities repressed free thought. In 1998, an Iranian student in Shiraz asked me for an English edition of Aristotle’s works, then banned by the mullahs.

Koreans, by contrast, believed in no supreme being. Their civilization was built on shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Starting in the nineteenth century many converted to Christianity – the grandmother of Kim Il Sung was a Presbyterian. But the Communist regime in Pyongyang has effectively outlawed all religion except hyper-nationalism and devotion to one dynasty. While many South Koreans are now Christian, most North Koreans have no appreciation for the faith of most Americans. The Pyongyang regime views Christian missionaries as subversives from an alien culture.

Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang, North Korea; By Suez (sophia) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many Iranians and North Koreans have a hate-love attitude toward the United States. Modernizers in each country looked to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a guide to development and a bulwark against imperialist intrigues. Persia’s parliament, the Majlis, backed two Americans, William M. Shuster and Arthur Millspaugh, as they organized the country’s treasury and taxation programs just before and after World War I and again during World War II, seeking to stave off  meddling by Russia and Great Britain. Two other Americans, Alexander Pope and his wife Phyllis Ackerman, edited a six-volume Survey of Persian Art, in the 1930s. Having returned to Iran in the 1960s, they are buried in a gorgeous mausoleum in Isfahan.

Whatever positive thoughts Iranians had about Americans were nearly erased by U.S. involvement in the coup that restored the Pahlavi dynasty in 1953 and by U.S. support for Iraq in the 1980s war, during which a U.S. ship shot down an Iranian Airbus jet killing nearly 300 people, including scores of children. These incidents have also obscured a recollection of the way that U.S. pressures at the United Nations helped push Soviet occupation forces from northern Iran in 1946.

Both positive and negative feelings toward the United States also exist in Korea. Some Koreans recall that in 1882 their king concluded a treaty with Washington pledging each side to use its “good offices” if the other were threatened. Instead, however, Washington winked as Japan absorbed and exploited Korea from 1895 to 1945. Many North Koreans do not realize that Kim Il Sung started the war in 1950, but they are sure that U.S. bombers flattened their country in the ensuing conflict.

In 1998, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami sought a “dialogue among civilizations” in lieu of a clash. I found myself addressing both diplomats and Islamic scholars in Tehran. The Iranian scholar who spoke after me denounced my various “errors,” apparently for the record, but then gave a similar speech urging East-West reconciliation. My best rapport, however, developed on a mountaintop overlooking the smoggy capital below. An off-duty colonel in the Iranian army and I joined in urging two off-duty privates not to pollute their lungs and the mountain air by smoking.

North Koreans and Americans cannot forget their bloody encounters from 1950 to 1953. Iran and the United States, by contrast, have never fought. Their disputes have been less serious than those that drove the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Americans have far more in common with Iranians than with North Koreans. But will this heritage ease the task of negotiating the next steps and living with a more extensive agreement if signed?

Walter Clemens, Jr. is an associate of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. He wrote Getting to Yes in Korea, with a foreword by Gov. Bill Richardson, in 2010.