North Korea may be an economic basket case, with a gross domestic product less than half that of Ethiopia, much of the population malnourished and lacking even an electrical light to turn on when darkness falls. North Koreans may enjoy no freedoms or human rights, with an estimated 200,000 confined to concentration camps. But North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles, so when Kim Jong Un, its 30-year-old "supreme leader' — a status inherited from his father and grandfather before him — issues threats, the United States and other nations listen up.
There are lessons here, and we should assume that among those learning them is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. In talks last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Khamenei's negotiators offered no serious compromises to the United States and five other Western powers.
It has become clear to all but the most credulous that Iran's theocrats will soon have "critical capability' — the means to produce enough weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium to make a nuke so quickly that neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor any Western intelligence service would detect it in advance.
During last week's talks, the Iranians told the Western powers that they want economic sanctions lifted as part of a "confidence-building' process. What Iran would do to build confidence was left unclear. Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, also demanded recognition of Iran's "right' to enrich uranium.
No such right exists. On the contrary, by installing advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium, Iran has violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring that it suspend "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.' Iran is in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards agreement as well.
At the end of the latest round of talks, even such dovish Western negotiators as Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, could see no path to progress. The two sides, she said, remain "far apart on substance.' They could not even agree on a date to resume talks.
Had Iranian negotiators been willing to set their sights a bit lower, they might have walked away appearing reasonable — without actually limiting their options. In the previous round of talks, in February in Almaty, Western diplomats were reportedly prepared to lift some of the economic pressure in exchange for Iran curtailing its production of 20 percent enriched uranium, and exporting some of its existing stock. Additional sanctions relief was contingent on Iran meeting all of its obligations under international law.
The problem with that approach from a Western perspective: After pocketing the concessions, Iran easily could have resumed enriching and accumulating 20 percent uranium; then, within a week or two, enriching further to about 90 percent weapons-grade, which it could, at a time of its own choosing, clandestinely turn into nuclear devices.
Why didn't the Iranians strike that bargain? Perhaps because Khamenei has seen North Korea repeatedly besting the West. After the Korean War ended in a draw in 1953, North Korean dictators Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, made fools of a list of American presidents, using threats to extort benefits. Lil' Kim is now attempting to do the same. Could Iran's Big Kahuna, heir to the great and glorious Islamic empires of history, settle for less?
There's also the fact that Khamenei is a man with a plan. "I'm not a diplomat; I'm a revolutionary,' he recently said. I suspect that means he does not intend to play games with those he regards as mortal enemies. He intends to defeat them thoroughly and unambiguously, in negotiations, battles and other encounters.
His confidence needs shaking. Sanctions should be ratcheted up to the level of economic warfare whether or not that term is used. The threat of military force, which President Barack Obama has been careful never to "take off the table,' must be made credible in Khamenei's eyes. At the moment, it is not.
Time is not on our side. By the estimates of David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleagues, Orde Kittrie and Mark Dubowitz, Tehran could reach critical capability before mid-2014.
At that point, the North Korean threat will seem like small kimchi in comparison with the perils posed by an oil-rich state, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, intent on spreading its Islamist revolution — and no doubt proliferating nuclear technology — globally. The moment Iran achieves "critical capability' is the moment the world of the 21st century becomes a more dangerous place than most of us can imagine.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.