North Korea may be an economic basket case with a GDP that is less than half that of Ethiopia, and with much of the population malnourished and lacking even an electric light to turn on when darkness falls. Most North Koreans enjoy no freedoms or human rights, and an estimated 200,000 are confined to concentration camps. But North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles, so when Kim Jong Un, its 29-year-old "Supreme Leader" — a status inherited from his father and grandfather before him — issues threats, the United States and other nations listen up.
There are lessons here, and we should assume that among those learning them is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader. In talks last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Khamenei's negotiators offered no serious compromises to the P5+1, which comprises the United States and five other powers.
The credulous, the irrationally optimistic, and the reflexive appeasers refuse to acknowledge that the world's leading sponsor of terrorism is determined to get its finger on a nuclear trigger. Others understand that Iran's theocrats will soon have "critical capability" — the means to produce enough weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium to make a nuke so quickly that neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor any Western intelligence service would detect it in advance.
During last week's talks the Iranians told the P5+1 that they want the economic sanctions lifted as part of a "confidence-building" process. What Iran would do to build confidence was left unclear. Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, also demanded recognition of Iran's "right" to enrich uranium.
No such right exists. On the contrary, by installing advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium, Iran has violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring that it suspend "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." Iran is in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement as well.
At the end of the latest round of talks, even such dovish Western negotiators as Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, could see no path to progress. The two sides, she said, remain "far apart in substance." (What else is there? Style?) They could not even agree on a date to resume talks.
Had Iranian negotiators been willing to set their sights a bit lower, they might have walked away appearing reasonable — without actually limiting their options. In the previous round of talks, in February in Almaty, Western diplomats were reportedly prepared to lift some of the economic pressure in exchange for Iran's curtailing its production of 20 percent–enriched uranium, and exporting some of its existing stock. Additional sanctions relief was contingent on Iran's meeting all of its obligations under international law.
The problem with that approach from a Western perspective: After pocketing the concessions, Iran easily could have resumed enriching and accumulating 20 percent–enriched uranium, and then, within a week or two, enriched further — to about 90 percent, weapons grade, which it could, at a time of its own choosing, clandestinely turn into nuclear devices.
Why didn't the Iranians strike that bargain? Perhaps because Khamenei has seen North Korea — its longtime nuclear partner — repeatedly besting the West. After the Korean War ended in a draw in 1953, North Korean dictators Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, made fools of a list of American presidents, using threats to extort benefits. Lil' Kim is now attempting to do the same. Could Iran's Big Kahuna, heir to the great and glorious Islamic empires of history, settle for less?
There's also the fact that Khamenei is a man with a plan. "I'm not a diplomat; I'm a revolutionary," he recently said. I suspect that means he does not intend to play games with those he regards as mortal enemies. He intends to defeat them — thoroughly and unambiguously, in negotiations, battles, and other encounters.
His confidence needs shaking. Sanctions should be ratcheted up to the level of economic warfare — whether or not that term is used. The threat of military force — which President Obama has been careful never to "take off the table" — must be made credible in Khamenei's eyes. At the moment, it is not.
Time is not on our side. By the estimates of David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleagues Orde Kittrie and Mark Dubowitz, "Tehran could reach critical capability before mid-2014."
At that point, the North Korean threat will seem like small kimchee in comparison with the perils posed by an oil-rich state, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, intent on spreading its Islamist revolution — and no doubt proliferating nuclear technology — globally. The moment Iran achieves "critical capability" is the moment the world of the 21st century becomes a more dangerous place than most of us can imagine.