[Viewpoint] The Iranian dilemma

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[Viewpoint] The Iranian dilemma

Sitting in one of the world’s major conflict regions, Korea is always destined to conduct a nerve-racking balancing act between its economic and national security interests.

It cannot reject a request by the United States, Korea’s biggest military ally, in its orchestrated campaign to impose global sanctions against Iran for its nuclear ambitions. At the same time, it cannot brush aside Iran’s threat that it will cut off all economic ties with Korea if it joins the sanctions, as bilateral trade of $10 billion a year is at stake.

There’s no clear-cut answer to what should come first - national security or the economy. Moreover, sitting on the fence won’t work either.

President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy is epitomized by tougher sanctions on Iran with the support of its trading partners. Iran is doing all it can to stop the effort that could cripple its economy. Even 19th century master of diplomacy Otto von Bismarck would have problems finding a solution to the conundrum that Korea now faces. We must try to unravel the problem based on the understanding that sanctions against Iran do not simply involve the U.S and Iran. The sanctions represent half of a broader strategic policy to deal with the world’s two biggest nuclear rogue nations - Iran and North Korea.

North Korea and Iran have long maintained close military ties. North Korea has been a key supplier of missile technology to Iran, helping to develop the country’s long-range ballistic missile Shahab-3. With North Korea’s missile technology, Iran developed missiles that can reach Israel and is suspected of supplying advanced missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The United States claims that an aircraft laden with North Korean-made missiles and other weaponry seized in Bangkok in December was en route to Iran. The U.S. has recently sought a concerted package of trade and financial sanctions from its global allies to corner Iran in addition to the renewed sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council in June.

Korea was approached by Washington for support. Iran’s state-owned Bank Mellat has its only Asian outlet in Seoul. The bank, created in 1979, has only five overseas branches and the Seoul branch is suspected of dealing in many illegal financial transactions for the Iranian government.

Iran and North Korea pursue missile and nuclear weapons programs for different goals. Iran wants to dominate the Middle East with its military leverage. North Korea initially sought to use its nuclear weapons program as part of a bargaining strategy, but savors its global role as a nuclear power.

Iran may have been silently appreciative of the U.S. for removing the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was its biggest rival and main stumbling block to leadership in the Middle East. But it opposes the Israel-first approach of the U.S. Middle East policy, which includes keeping Iran at bay. Washington cannot allow Iran to threaten to wipe out Israel with nuclear bombs.

North Korea has so far pursued its nuclear program using weapons-grade plutonium with the help of Pakistan. Iran depends on enriched uranium. But Pakistan has joined hands with the U.S. Pressure by the U.S. on North Korea’s plutonium-based program will increase regardless of how the six-party negotiations turn out. To sustain its nuclear program, North Korea will inevitably have to turn to enriched uranium to produce weapons. When that time comes, help from Iran will be indispensable. Slapping sanctions on Iran therefore targets North Korea as well.

The U.S., the European Union and Japan are planning separate sanction measures. Seoul cannot say no to Washington’s demand particularly since their security alliance has grown stronger in the wake of the Cheonan crisis.

The tricky part is the economy. Measures must be sought to minimize the losses for Korean companies after the ties with Iran sour. Authorities can shut down the Mellat Bank’s Seoul branch and try to settle payments through central banks like Japan does.

But Iran is threatening to levy super-high tariffs on Korean imports and exclude Korean companies from construction orders as well as curbing or ceasing oil shipments to Korea. The answer may be found with a compromise. We can come up with a sanction package that milder than that of the other U.S. allies, while telling Washington that it is best we can do under our economic circumstances.

Persuading and satisfying both U.S. and Iran won’t be easy. That’s where the expertise from our diplomatic veterans counts. Our diplomats may not be Bismarck, but it is an opportunity to test their diplomatic skills. Iran sanctions are an economic matter and North Korean sanctions are a security issue. There would be a solution if the government only puts half the effort it does into preparing for the G-20 summit.

*The writer is a senior columnist on international affairs of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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