Another country with nuclear aspirations is watching the North Korean standoff closely

Key Points
  • Iran may come to believe that if North Korea can get away with building a nuclear weapon in spite of U.S. protests, then it can, too.
  • Officials warn Iran could be the winner in the apparently escalating crisis.
It's time to acknowledge North Korea is a 'definitive' nuclear power: Expert
It's time to acknowledge North Korea is a 'definitive' nuclear power: Expert

As the world turns its attention to reports that North Korea has mastered a key component to making a nuclear missile, experts warn that the White House must also keep its eye on Iran.

The concern, some say, is that Tehran will see that if North Korea can get away with building a nuclear weapon in spite of U.S. protests, then it can, too.

Matt Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said North Korean progress may lead Iran to try to become the next nuclear power. "It's a human and emotional response, but also logical," he said of Tehran's possible goals.

Adding to worries Iran will try to take advantage of the U.S. focus on North Korea, a top aide to supreme leader Kim Jong Un is on a 10-day trip to meet with Iranian leaders in Tehran, according to official North Korean news reports. The reports say top officials from North Korea's army, navy and air force are part of the trip.

Alireza Nader, an expert on Iran for the global policy think tank RAND Corp., said the meetings aren't surprising. "Iran and North Korea cooperate on many fronts but mostly on defense," he said.

Nader added that "most of the North Korean relationship with Iran centers on missile systems. North Korea was helping Iran, but now Iran is helping North Korea with technology for inter-continental ballistic missiles."

The Iran-North Korea relationship

Despite colliding ideologies, the relationship between the Islamic Republic and communist-atheist North Korea began to blossom during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran sold oil to North Korea to raise cash for military supplies. Iran still ships some oil to North Korea, but that's limited because North Korea doesn't have much to trade in return for the fuel. "The relationship is really more military than anything" according to Nader.

Levitt cautioned, however, that the North Korean crisis and the situation in Iran are not entirely parallel: "Iran is not a closed economy that is entirely blocked off from the rest of the world, while North Korea largely is."

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, right, meets with a top North Korean leader, Kim Yong Nam, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013.
Ebrahim Noroozi | AP

That is, Tehran has more to lose from breaking the 2015 international nuclear deal that eased sanctions on the country, while North Korea is a true rogue nation. In fact, French automaker Renault earlier this week struck a deal to build cars in Iran, and energy giant Total recently reached a deal with the Iranians.

Estimates show that more than 90 percent of all trade conducted by North Korea goes through China, whereas Iran is seen as a regional power in the Middle East.

But, Levitt added, "when one situation goes wrong it is inevitable that you think about the other." Still, he said, President Donald Trump's administration right now has no choice but to focus most of its attention on North Korea.

Dealing with multiple trouble spots

Former U.S. ambassador Ed Walker disagreed. Walker, who served in Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, said it's crucial that the Trump team focuses on both issues at the same time.

"As soon as you start distracting U.S. efforts to contain Iran, that frees up space for Iran to move forward with its nuclear program," he said.

A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016.
Mahmood Hosseini | TIMA | Reuters

Walker also said that if the Trump administration can't keep both issues in check at the same time, "they should quit and go home."

"President Trump has put himself at a terrible disadvantage by leaving key posts at the State Department unfilled and by not hiring qualified staff fast enough," said Walker, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

In an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" last week, Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution specialist in defense strategy, warned that Iran is watching what's happening on the Korean Peninsula closely and using it as a test. He asked rhetorically, "What lessons will Iran draw if North Korea gets away with not only getting a bomb, but building up continuously with China and Russia tolerating it?"

While the North Korean nuclear front is clearly escalating, tensions with Iran are hardly dissipating. After the White House said it wants inspections of Iranian military facilities, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry mocked the push, reportedly calling it "possibly something that a satirist wrote up."

RAND's Nader said the Trump administration would be wise to not push for more inspections of Iran just for the sake of testing the nuclear deal.

"If there is true suspicion of Iranian cheating or violating the accord, then the U.S. should increase inspections," said Nader. But, he added, the North Korea crisis is a great example of why the current deal is so important. "Iran is under a heavy inspections regime, North Korea was not."