North Korea's agreement to suspend its military nuclear program does not minimize the Iranian threat at all. The opposite is true. North Korea showed Iran how it can elicit concessions and benefits from the West while at the same time maintaining its nuclear capabilities.
It doesn't matter at all whether the North Korean nuclear test reached the required potency or even partly failed. The moment North Korea detonated a nuclear device it is in possession of all the know-how and equipment needed in order to produce atomic weapons. Therefore, even if North Korea now proceeds to suspend work at its nuclear facilities, close them down, and subject them to UN monitoring, and even if it delivers all the material already produced to the UN, it would be able to kick out UN inspectors at any time, renew production, and within a year or two produce two or three new nuclear bombs.
North Korea already resorted to similar moves in the past, and it will likely deny the pledges it took upon itself in the future as well. And if North Korea is like that, this is even truer for Iran, which has more ambitious strategic goals and a greater ability to withstand international pressures.
We must recall that North Korea is a country where citizens are starving to death. It desperately needs food and its means of production: Fuel and fertilizers. North Korea's nuclear weapons were meant to be used as a bargaining chip to begin with in a bid to elicit economic concessions from the West that would enable the regime to survive.
Iran, on the other hand, is a leading global oil exporter and views nuclear weapons as a means to dictate its political desires and ideology in the Middle East and beyond. Therefore, Iran is much less sensitive to Western pressure and sanctions. Yet it can certainly imitate the North Korean moves: First, acquire proven capabilities to produce and activate nuclear weapons, and then, after the entire world knows "it has it" and regional countries are scared of it, Tehran can change direction and sign an agreement with the West replete with concessions and benefits in exchange for suspending the nuclear program (which can be continued secretly or renewed at any moment.)
Unanswered questionsIf I were Khamenei, this is the lesson I would draw from the agreement signed with North Korea: Why should we stop enriching uranium when we can, within a short period of time, both possess the know-how and materials for producing nuclear weapons and also see sanctions lifted and other benefits?
Even if the North Korean agreement is separated from the Iranian context, it's still too early to celebrate. What has been published so far does not clarify several critical questions:
- Did North Korea obligate not to transfer the knowledge needed to produce nuclear weapons and warheads to other countries? And if it did commit, is there a mechanism that would monitor the implementation? North Korea has a clear interest in profiting from the knowledge it possesses, and Iran is certainly a potential client.
- Does North Korea have a secret facility for the production of nuclear materials that the West is unaware of, and would UN inspectors have short-notice access to all facilities and regions in North Korea?
- Did North Korea obligate to destroy its facilities and deliver the materials it does possess for destruction by UN inspectors, or are we only talking about "shutting down" the facilities? If this is only a case of "shutting down", the activity can be renewed quickly.
Only after these matters become clear we'll be able to assess whether the draft agreement with North Korea is a genuine achievement for the American Administration and international pressure, or whether we're talking about yet another successful North Korean deception.