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How the United States Can Overcome North Korean and Iranian Nuclear Threats

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

by Sharaf Younes

The proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe has posed both a poignant dilemma to foreign policymakers and an existential threat to humanity as a whole. Dealing with nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran in particular has been a major challenge for the United States for several decades, as these two countries have made significant progress in their nuclear programs, which has raised serious concerns about their intentions and capabilities. The US has responded with various diplomatic, economic, and military measures to prevent these countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, but despite efforts by the US and the international community to curb their nuclear ambitions, North Korea and Iran have continued to develop their nuclear programs. This op-ed will explore the major obstacles the US must overcome, including the difficult relationship between the US and these two nations and the potential consequences of military action. Additionally, this op-ed will provide potential solutions for the US to navigate these challenges.

The tense relationship the US has with both North Korea and Iran makes mitigating the nuclear threats they pose doubly challenging, especially since the revolution of 1979 in the case of the latter. The US has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran, with the goal of pressuring the country to abandon its nuclear program and curb its support for terrorism in the region. In 2015, the US, along with several other world powers, negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which lifted some of the economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country agreeing to limit its nuclear program and submit to international inspections. However, in 2018, the US withdrew from the JCPOA, citing concerns over Iran's other activities in the region, such as support for militias and missile development. This has since stoked Iranian hostility towards the US and its allies, demonstrated by their attack on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and their shooting down of a US drone in. Similarly, The United States has imposed several rounds of sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its human rights abuses. The sanctions have had a significant impact on North Korea's economy but have thus far, failed to halt their nuclear weapons programs. This too, has created a political climate of North Korean aggression towards the US, with leader Kim Jong Un threatening to launch a missile attack on the US territory of Guam in 2017. The lack of trust and dialogue between both nations poses a challenge, making any de-escalation effort significantly more difficult.

In the case of Iran, military deterrence may prove to be an effective tool in mitigating the nuclear threat. The US could leverage their relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Such a technique must be employed with caution, however, as fortifying military positions in the Middle East may be perceived as an act of aggression and could result in further escalation of the existing tension. Such a presence if used with care, however, could pressure Iran into entering negotiations in a way sanctions — the brunt of which has been born by Iran’s poorest citizens — could not. The support of the regime change in Iran is another more precarious strategy the US could employ in order to mitigate the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and install a less hostile governing body. Such an approach however should be a last resort as the violence and proxy warfare it could spark make it highly unappealing. Conducting joint military exercises with regional partners could also prove effective for managing North Korea, as both South Korea and Japan are in close vicinity. North Korea has a limited number of allies due to its isolationist policies and confrontational stance towards many countries, and thus, is in a comparatively weaker geopolitical position than Iran. Because of its lack of close allies, the US may even be able to conduct targeted attacks against nuclear facilities in North Korea without too much backlash from the international community.

While regime change and displays of military power can subdue and intimidate international belligerents, the US also has a range of strategies at its disposal that would provide positive incentives for Iran and North Korea to denuclearize. Economic incentives, such as lifting sanctions or providing assistance to developing the country's economy, could help to build support for denuclearization both within Iran and North Korea, in which US sanctions have created harsh economic conditions. The US could offer to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea and remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would help to legitimize the North Korean government and provide it with greater access to the international community. Additionally, the US could offer Iran and North Korea access to advanced technology and scientific exchange programs, as well as greater cultural exchange and engagement with the outside world. Finally, the US could offer to enter into a formal treaty with Iran and North Korea, providing them with legally binding assurances that the US would not use nuclear weapons against them or support other countries in their use of nuclear weapons. Such security assurances could help to build trust and confidence between the US and Iran and North Korea, which could ultimately create a political climate in which denuclearization is a readier possibility.


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