Monday, June 19, 2006

The Tehran and Pyongyang Game

What's with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Islamic Republic of Iran these days? It seems that every week or so, one or the other will do something that goes flat-out counter to the will of the international community. For months, Tehran has been playing a maddening game of nuclear cat-and-mouse with the rest of the world, combining an unflinching position on its right to nuclear energy and enrichment with the occasional call for the destruction of the state of Israel. One day it says it is willing to negotiate, the next it harangues whoever intends to sit down at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, North Korea seems on the brink of mothballing years of painful negotiation with the regional powers plus the United States by giving all indications that it is about to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Prima facie, the actions of these two governments seem illogical, if not altogether self-defeating. What good could possibly emerge from behavior that results in isolation from the international community and sets of sanctions?

At one level, the international community should keep in mind that the rationality of heads of state cannot be taken for granted. Put differently, that leaders like Kim Jong-Il and Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad have the welfare of the people they govern at heart is not a given. Often, the comments of those leaders will demonstrate a certain disconnection from reality—as calling for the destruction of Israel, for example, an act to which retaliation could in no way be beneficial to the Iranian people.

That said, there is a marked distinction between Iran and the DPRK, one that has a substantive impact on how the world should assess the strategies behind those countries' actions. In North Korea's case, decision-making is largely the remit of the supreme leader, Jong-Il. For all intents and purposes, Jong-Il is the state, and the totalitarian mechanism that props him up makes it so that it is very difficult to distinguish between the leader's rhetoric and that of the state. Inherently, there are very few, if any, barriers to prevent the leader's irrational behavior from harming the state.

Iran's case is much different. The President's calls for the destruction of the State of Israel notwithstanding, decision-making in Tehran remains institutional; in other words, no single figure, however powerful, can dictate what the state should or should not do. A consequence of this is that institutional decision-making acts as a buffer against irrationality, one that should allay some of the fears of imminent destruction in Tel Aviv. Looked at from another angle, public statements overtly calling for the incineration of all things Jewish provide no small amount of drama and ample ammunition for think-tanks, intelligence agencies and defense departments the world over, but in reality the likelihood that Iran will act on such rhetoric is extraordinarily low.

So, if irrationality is not sufficient to explain the behavior of the two remaining corners of the alleged "Axis of Evil," is there something that the two rogue states have in common which could be used to explain the situation we're currently finding ourselves in?

There is, and it is the untenable status quo. Despite the efforts of the world's intelligence agencies, it is very difficult to ascertain what's going on in the minds of the decision-makers back in Tehran and Pyongyang. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to imagine that the status quo in either country is considered intolerable by the ruling regimes. In other words, there might be situations where anything but the status quo would be better. It's a little like a limb that's been fixed in the same position for too long: after a while, it becomes palsied and quite uncomfortable. Shifting that limb becomes the rational choice, even if in theory there is a chance that the new position will only bring more pain. Another example would be the reflex to swallow something that's singeing one's tongue rather than spit it out; it is not a rational choice. Logically, the last thing someone would think of doing would be to swallow the burning morsel of food, but the status quo (a burning tongue) needs to be altered—now.

As to how a status quo becomes untenable for a state, the possibilities are rife. Sometimes, due to domestic pressures that from the outside are hard to perceive, states will act in such a way as to elicit an external response. It could be as simple a reason as the need to demonstrate to certain interest groups, or the constituents, that the government is doing something. At other times, states will see the status quo as an opportunity to gain leverage at the negotiating table, to improve their bargaining power. Furthermore, however unrelated the Iranian and the DPRK cases might be, in the minds of the decision-makers, the template they use might be a binary one; in other words, they might see them as connected or as part of the same equation. If, for example, Pyongyang perceives that Tehran is ameliorating its position by stubbornly defying the international community, it might choose to do so itself, and vice-versa. If one manages to obtain something, the other will then be in a position to say, hey, you gave this to X, so why not us?

In sum, the above theories are my way of saying that however irrational and illogical the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang might appear, they should not be seen as part of the same phenomenon, or used as interchangeable examples of bad diplomatic behavior. These are two different systems with different sets of checks and balances. Nor should we assume, especially in Iran's case, that irrationality is the key factor in the decision-making process. A perceived position of weakness resulting from a skewed status quo, as we have seen, could very well explain certain types of behavior that, on the surface, might appear dangerously close to suicidal (why would Iran defy the United States, for example, after seeing what's happened to its neighbor?). However, if irrationality is indeed the key factor, then all the world's eyes should definitely be fixed on Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Iran can be left on its own without posing too much of a threat to its neighbors—Israel included.

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