Rogue Nations

Talking Points

  • Iran and North Korea pose dangerous threats to U.S. national security interests.
  • Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and seeks one of the world’s most terrifying weapons: a nuclear bomb.
  • Iran also has developed the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East, which poses a growing threat to U.S. bases, U.S. allies, and numerous other countries in the region.
  • North Korea has likely developed six to eight nuclear weapons and claims it can already hit the continental United States with nuclear warheads.
  • New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as belligerent and dangerous as his predecessors. Pyongyang will continue to conduct additional provocative acts in order to achieve its foreign policyobjectives.
  • Washington should deploy a robust and comprehensive missile defense system to defend against ballistic missile threats from both rogue states.

The Issue

The rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea pose some of the most dangerous threats to U.S. national security interests. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is rapidly expanding its nuclear program and ballistic missile force. North Korea poses a multifaceted military threat to peace and stability in Asia, as well as a global proliferation risk. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has failed to formulate effective policies to address the challenges posed by the rising power of Iran and the unpredictable regime in North Korea.

Iran. Iran has been hostile to the United States since 1979, when a revolution brought to power a cadre of anti-Western Shia Islamist revolutionaries who dubbed the United States the “Great Satan.” Iran has tried to export its Islamist revolution violently to Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia by supporting Shia radical Islamists in each of these countries. Tehran helped to create the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon and has supported a wide variety of terrorist and revolutionary groups throughout the Middle East. It became the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism to advance its foreign policy goals and punish its enemies.

In recent years, Iran’s hostile regime has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the political turmoil that convulsed the Middle East during the “Arab Spring,” which distracted the United States and other countries from the ongoing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The dramatic events diverted international attention from Tehran’s stubborn defiance of four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions on the nuclear issue. The political upheaval in the Arab world also has toppled a government in Egypt, and undermined governments in Jordan, Bahrain, and elsewhere, that firmly opposed Iran. Although Bashar al-Assad’s pro-Iranian regime in Syria also has been weakened, strong support from Iran appears for the moment to have tilted the balance of power in Syria’s civil war back in favor of Assad.


Iran’s nuclear weapons program, masked within its civilian nuclear power program, poses a major threat to the United States and its allies. Iran also has developed the Middle East’s largest ballistic missile force, which poses a growing threat to U.S. bases, U.S. allies, and numerous other countries in the region.

North Korea. North Korea poses a multifaceted military threat to peace and stability in Asia as well as a global proliferation risk. Pyongyang has developed enough fissile material for six to eight plutonium-based nuclear weapons and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility, increasing not only the potential threats from an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal, but also the risk of nuclear proliferation. North Korea has assisted programs in both Iran and Syria.

Pyongyang claims it can already hit the continental United States with nuclear warheads. U.S. and South Korean technical assessments, including from recovered North Korean long-range missiles, indicate that Pyongyang has or could shortly attain that capability. Pyongyang has already deployed hundreds of missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and U.S. bases on Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam.

Pyongyang’s unprovoked acts of war in 2010 against a South Korean naval ship and a civilian-inhabited island were chilling reminders that its conventional forces remain a direct military threat to a U.S. ally. North Korea will continue to conduct additional provocative acts in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as belligerent and dangerous as his predecessors. After Kim Jong-un assumed office in December 2011, North Korea repeatedly vowed that it would never abandon its nuclear arsenal, and tensions escalated to dangerous levels in early 2013. Pyongyang has threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and conduct “merciless” nuclear attacks on the United States.


Recommendations

  1. Halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Washington must do a better job of enforcing its red line against an Iranian nuclear weapon than it did in enforcing the Obama Administration’s ill-considered red line against Syrian chemical weapons. Tehran must be forced by sanctions to comply with its non-proliferation obligations. The U.S. must demonstrate the willingness and capacity to defend its vital interests in the region. The U.S. should not agree to lift or ease sanctions until Iran has taken concrete and irreversible actions to stop uranium enrichment, ship medium-enriched uranium stocks out of the country, close the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, and halt work on the heavy water reactor at Arak.
  2. Deploy a robust and comprehensive missile defense system to defend against ballistic missile threats from both rogue states. Fielding a robust and layered set of land-, sea-, and space-based missile defenses is critical to protecting the U.S. and its friends and allies from Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles. Washington should also fully fund U.S. defense requirements for North Korean contingencies. The Obama Administration’s policy reversal and newfound reliance on ground-based interceptors, SBX radar, and F-22 fighters—all systems that it curtailed—shows the dangers inherent in cutting defense spending amid rising Asian security threats.
  3. Adopt an agenda to bring freedom to Iran. The Obama Administration made a grave error in muting its criticism of Iran’s 2009 crackdown on the opposition Green Movement and Iran’s chronic abuses of human rights. In the long run, a free Iran is the best hope for peace and security in the volatile Middle East. Washington must make it clear that the United States stands with the Iranian people, not with the repressive regime of the ayatollahs. It should publicize and condemn Tehran’s human rights violations, expose the corruption of regime officials, publicize the activities of opposition groups, and help them communicate with the Iranian people.
  4. Resist the siren song of re-engagement with North Korea. Washington and Seoul repeatedly tried diplomatic overtures, but all were firmly rejected by Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un’s regime vowed never to abandon its nuclear weapons or return to the Six-Party Talks. Another envoy would get the same message.
  5. Do not back down on displays of resolve. The U.S. should clearly and unequivocally affirm its commitment to defending its allies. Obama Administration statements that U.S. military moves were partly meant to forestall South Korea from responding to a North Korean attack send the wrong message. The United States also should step up joint military exercises with Israel, Turkey, and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to enhance deterrence against Iran.
  6. Urge China to pressure Pyongyang. Beijing should be told that its reticence to join international pressure on North Korea is triggering the crisis that China seeks to avoid. Pyongyang has only been emboldened to ratchet up tensions still further, pushing Washington and its allies to take necessary military steps that Beijing does not want.
  7. Implement comprehensive U.S. sanctions against North Korea. Despite its bold rhetoric, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to target North Korean financial assets aggressively, as was done against Banco Delta Asia or non–North Korean entities violating U.N. resolutions and international law.
  8. Since the U.N. has been reluctant to impose measures against North Korea, the U.S. should:

     

    • Insist that the next U.N. resolution—to be implemented after a North Korean nuclear test—include Chapter VII, Article 42 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for enforcement by military means. This would enable naval ships to intercept and board North Korean ships suspected of transporting precluded nuclear, missile, and conventional arms, components, or technology.
    • Demand that all U.N. member nations fully implement U.N. resolution requirements to prevent North Korea’s procurement and proliferation of missile- and WMD-related items and technology.
    • Publicly identify all North Korean and foreign banks, businesses, and government agencies suspected of violating U.N. resolutions.
    • Freeze and seize the financial assets of any involved North Korean and foreign person, company, or government entity violating U.N. resolutions and U.S. or international law.
    • Call upon foreign banks, businesses, and governments to reciprocate U.S. actions against North Korean and foreign violators.
    • Lead an international effort against North Korean illegal activities, including currency counterfeiting and drug smuggling. U.S. law enforcement actions in 2005 against Pyongyang’s accounts in Banco Delta Asia were highly effective, but they were later abandoned in acquiescence to North Korean demands to “improve the atmosphere” for nuclear negotiations.
  9. Maintain the capability, capacity, and will to defend vital U.S. interests and honor U.S. treaty obligations.

Facts & Figures

  • Iran’s Islamist regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It has close ties to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which it organized and continues to finance, arm, and train. Tehran also supports a wide variety of Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command.
  • With the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, Iran has the capability to strike U.S. bases in the region, as well as Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and a growing number of other U.S. allies, using a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).
  • Experts predict that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the United States as early as 2015.
  • North Korea has a 1.1 million-man army, 70 percent of which is deployed within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. These forces include mechanized infantry corps, artillery corps, an armored corps, and several infantry corps.
  • North Korea has 13,000 artillery pieces deployed along the DMZ. Many of these weapons, including chemical weapons–capable systems, already threaten the 13 million inhabitants of Seoul, which is located 30 miles from the DMZ.
  • North Korea has 800 Scud short-range tactical ballistic missiles, 300 No Dong medium-range missiles, and 100 to 200 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Scud missiles can reach anywhere in South Korea, the No Dong missiles can target all of Japan, and the Musudan missiles can hit U.S. bases on Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam.
  • North Korea spends an estimated 25 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on its military.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Rogue Nations


  • Steven Bucci

    Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies


  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies


  • Bruce Klingner

    Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.