Iran and North Korea have presented the world — and particularly the U.S. — with a twin nuclear crisis. As both countries continue to be subjected to numerous coercive measures such as sanctions and cyber-attacks, which out of the two poses a bigger threat to the U.S., and more broadly, to the security and stability of their respective regions?
As far as the actual development of nuclear weapons itself is concerned, North Korea has proven to be a much bigger menace. While the North has successfully added to its arsenal the ability to use nuclear weapons, Iran on the other hand has no such means. Furthermore, Iran's nuclear program has faced numerous obstructions via U.S.-Israeli cyber-attacks and clandestine Mossad activities targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. These measures have significantly slowed down Iran’s nuclear program.
According to UN and U.S. officials, North Korea has the ability to produce dozens more nuclear bombs by employing two separate programs to create weapons-grade fuel using plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Iran, on the other hand, has only developed uranium-enrichment technology. Iran also has a standing agreement with the IAEA which allows officials to visit Iranian nuclear-fuel sites. Pyongyang, conversely, expelled IAEA inspectors from the Yongbyon complex in 2002.
The North also presents a much bigger proliferation hazard than Iran. The U.S. and IAEA believe the North has already sold missile designs and components to Syria, Yemen and Egypt.
Another prime consideration is the degree of threat the two states present to their regions and to the U.S. It is important to realize that the prime target (or enemy number one) for Iran is not the U.S. ... it is Israel. Despite the hostility Iran has towards the U.S. — a hostility that has built up over the years since the 1953 CIA orchestrated coup that ousted democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq to the subsequent U.S. sponsored vicious and inept rule under the Shah — Iran’s prime enemy remains Israel. On the other hand North Korea has left us with no doubt that its prime targets are the U.S. and South Korea.
Examining the question from a regional perspective, again, North Korea seems to be a much greater cause for alarm. The degree of hostility the North possesses towards, say, South Korea or Japan is far greater than the animosity that exists between Iran and its regional neighbors. Iran no longer has to worry about Iraq. Its tense relations with Azerbaijan (with which it broke diplomatic ties in 2012) have recently seen improvement with Ahmadinejad's visit to Baku to pacify the situation. Issues with Afghanistan and Pakistan are only minor clashes of interests. Hence, compared to North Korea, Iran does not pose a threat to its adjoining regions that can be equated to the hostility North Korea displays towards its region. Nor is Iran in a habit to make vehemently hostile and ill-conceived statements and regional threats the way the North does.
Overall, it is pertinent to note that the policies, actions, and the rhetoric in general that comes out of North Korea and Iran is a reflection of and a direct consequence of the way the leaders of these states think and function. In that sense, it can be argued that Iran is a much more rational actor than North Korea. Inside news from the latest round of (failed) negotiations between the international community and Iran showed that Iranian diplomats were much more understanding and pliable than their political elite. North Korea instead presents us with a much more unanimous and monolithic form of hostility and aggression. The actions of Kim Jong-Un and those of his clique of close associates are far more self-serving, and are aimed at furthering their own interests rather than those of the North Korean people. Iranian leaders on the other hand are far more accountable to the Iranian people; unlike their North Korean counterparts, when the sanctions took a heavy toll on the locals, the Iranian leaders agreed to take part in negotiations and talks. Subsequently there has been evidence of Iran tuning down its nuclear related activities.
For now, Iran does not present the U.S. or Israel with a case where urgent military or any other form of drastic intervention is required. The North Korean situation seems to be escalating towards a point where something eventually has to give. On the Iranian front, with a new government coming in this year, there is ample reason to let coercive diplomacy take its course to prevent Iran from going nuclear. One thing is for sure: there is no reason for the U.S. to go Baghdad on Tehran.
At this juncture in time, compared to Iran, North Korea is a far more unpredictable and hence a more dangerous entity.