The United States faces twin crises involving nuclear proliferation, as both North Korea and Iran seem poised to barge into the global nuclear-weapons club.  (There are indications that North Korea may have already done so, since she has processed enough plutonium to build as many as 13 weapons.)  U.S. policy toward those two rogue states has followed a familiar pattern.  Washington has no formal diplomatic relations with either country, and it has entered into negotiations with those regimes only with great reluctance and following intense prodding by long-standing U.S. allies.

It may be emotionally satisfying to refuse to recognize the current North Korean and Iranian governments, since one would be hard-pressed to identify two more odious regimes in the international system.  Nevertheless, refusing to maintain any formal relationship with Iran and North Korea when those countries are poised to become nuclear powers is potentially very dangerous.

Washington has never recognized North Korea’s communist regime since it seized power (with Moscow’s assistance) after World War II.  Any chance that U.S. leaders might adopt a more flexible policy disappeared when Pyongyang’s forces attacked noncommunist South Korea in June 1950 in an effort to unify the peninsula under communism.  Although the United States has occasionally negotiated with North Korea (most notably, the 1994 agreement freezing that country’s nuclear program), the focus of U.S. policy has been to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically and maintain a system of rigorous economic sanctions.  Even when Japan, China, Russia, and the major European powers recognized both Korean states following the end of the Cold War, Washington did not follow suit.

When the current nuclear crisis erupted in the autumn of 2002, the Bush administration refused to talk to Pyongyang.  During the early months of the confrontation, Washington’s position was unyielding: There would be no talks whatsoever  until Pyongyang stopped violating the 1994 Agreed Framework and allowed outside inspections to verify that it was complying with all provisions of the agreement.  When it became evident that North Korea was accelerating the revival of her nuclear-weapons program, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea all urged Washington to drop its demand and talk to Pyongyang.  The United States finally responded (especially to pressure exerted by our allies) and shifted tactics in early 2003.  Following a meeting with Japanese and South Korean diplomats, the State Department announced that it would agree to direct talks with Pyongyang.  U.S. officials stressed, however, that this would in no way constitute “negotiations.”

Most experts found this to be a distinction without a difference.  Eventually, Washington agreed to direct negotiations with Pyongyang, but only within a multilateral framework.  Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program menaced North Korea’s neighbors, Washington argued, so they should play a role in any diplomatic sessions.  North Korea, in turn, insisted on bilateral talks with the United States.  A compromise was reached in which all formal negotiations would take place within the framework of six-party talks (including Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea), but U.S. and North Korean delegates could conduct informal, bilateral “discussions” on the side.  The six-party talks have dragged on for more than three years with meager progress.

Washington’s relationship with Iran over the decades has been almost as rocky as its interaction with North Korea.  After a coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency ousted a democratic government and restored the shah to his throne, Tehran and Washington became close allies for the next quarter century.  That situation changed dramatically when an Islamic revolution drove the shah into exile in early 1979.  A few months later, tensions rose dramatically when an Iranian mob (with the apparent connivance of the new government) stormed the U.S. embassy and took American diplomats hostage.  They were not freed until January 1981, and the United States and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations since the start of the hostage incident.

The lack of a formal relationship has become a significant issue since evidence began to mount in the past three years that Tehran was pursuing a program to develop nuclear weapons.  Yet Washington made no move to engage the Iranian regime in negotiations or even substantive discussions.  Indeed, until the spring of 2005, White House officials discouraged Britain, France, and Germany from negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue.  Washington reluctantly endorsed the diplomatic efforts of the “EU-3” only after extracting a commitment from them to support stronger measures against Tehran if diplomacy failed to produce the desired result.  Despite prodding from London, Paris, and Berlin, the Bush administration steadfastly refused to participate in the ongoing negotiations.

Tehran’s efforts to thaw relations with Washington also were rebuffed.  In the months following September 11, the Iranian regime expressed a willingness to work with the United States to undermine the Taliban government and its Al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan.  After initially exploring that possibility, the administration spurned the overtures.  The degree of hostility directed against Tehran was reflected in President Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union Address when he dubbed Iran, North Korea, and Iraq the “Axis of Evil.”  There was one more opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough.  Using intermediaries, the Iranian government reportedly proposed in early 2003 to turn over numerous Al Qaeda leaders whom Tehran was holding prisoner in exchange for Washington’s willingness to begin the process of normalizing political and economic relations between the two countries.

Washington’s reluctance to engage in any negotiations with Iran has eased only this past year.  As recently as early May, the Bush administration seemed uninterested in any dialogue, even on the crucial nuclear issue.  That was evident when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a lengthy letter to President Bush—the first communication to an American chief executive from an Iranian head of state since the 1979-81 hostage episode.  It was a curious document—a rambling 18-page treatise on history, religion, politics, and world affairs.  As a foundation for serious, substantive negotiations on the Iranian nuclear crisis, the letter was decidedly inadequate.

Nevertheless, Washington’s response was disappointing and shortsighted.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed the letter even before it had been translated.  President Bush’s reaction was not much better.  He criticized it for not answering “the question the international community is asking”—namely, “when will Iran give up its nuclear program?”  The White House emphasized that there would be no reply to the letter.  In other words, unless Iran’s leaders were willing to surrender on the issue that was the principal U.S. grievance, Washington was not interested in any dialogue with Tehran.

A few days following Ahmadinejad’s letter, Time published an open letter from Hassan Rohani, representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.  That letter was considerably more focused and substantive than Ahmadinejad’s effort and was another indication that the Iranians wanted meaningful discussions with Washington.

In early June, the Bush administration abruptly altered its position by agreeing to join the EU-3 negotiations with Tehran.  The reason for that policy shift is not clear, but it is the first encouraging sign in decades.  Yet one should not attach too much importance to Washington’s apparent greater diplomatic flexibility.  There is no indication that it will lead to anything even resembling a normal political and economic relationship between the two countries.

The North Korean and Iranian situations highlight a broader problem in the way the United States deals with difficult and repressive adversaries.  One should have no illusions.  The current North Korean and Iranian governments are brutal, hostile, and odious regimes.  North Korea is little more than a giant slave-labor camp, and Pyongyang routinely imprisons, tortures, and executes people suspected of opposing communist rule in the slightest.  Tehran’s policy of supporting groups that use terrorist tactics is reprehensible, and Ahmadinejad’s hateful screeds against Israel are both bizarre and repulsive.

The United States does not have the luxury of engaging only pleasant, democratic, and tolerant governments, however.  One of the great challenges of effective diplomacy is to deal with, and get results from, regimes that most Americans would prefer not exist.  Unfortunately, that is an unpleasant reality that seems to elude recent generations of U.S. policymakers.

Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, Washington’s typical response to unfriendly, repressive governments (especially of small countries) is to isolate and berate them.  Before Wilson, our general practice was to deal with any government that controlled a country, whether we liked the regime or not.  That policy was far more realistic and productive.  The current approach is akin to the maturity one would expect from an adolescent: “I don’t like you, and I’m not going to speak to you.”

That strategy has produced utterly unsatisfying results.  For more than two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Washington did not have diplomatic relations with Hanoi, even though Vietnam was a significant political and military player in Southeast Asia.  We have pursued a similar policy of truculence toward Cuba for decades, without dislodging the Castro regime’s grip on power.

We have adopted the same futile approach toward North Korea and Iran, even though both countries are on the brink of entering the nuclear-weapons club.  Consider that for a moment: We have no relations with two countries that may soon have nuclear arsenals.  That is not only foolish but profoundly dangerous.  The lack of effective communication invites misunderstanding, miscalculation, and potential disaster.

Normalizing relations would at least reduce those dangers.  As it is, Washington has no reliable mechanism even for gathering information from Tehran and Pyongyang.  When North Korea showed signs of preparing to test a long-range ballistic missile in June 2005, Washington had to ask China to make inquiries on our behalf in order to find out what the payload was.  If normal diplomatic relations existed, the White House could have instructed the U.S. ambassador in Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, express strong U.S. opposition to any missile test, and press him to disclose the nature of the payload and the purpose of the test: For example, was it intended to be a satellite launch or a military test?

In addition to enhancing dialogue and reducing the potential for miscalculation, formal diplomatic relations would give the United States greater opportunity to penetrate the host regimes and gather information.  To put it bluntly, it would make it much easier to spy on these potential adversaries.  As it is, the United States apparently has few, if any, intelligence operatives in North Korea and relies almost entirely on South Korea for such information.  The meager spy network the United States had in Iran was reportedly rolled up a few years ago because of betrayal by a double agent.  In short, Washington is largely operating blind in dealing with both nuclear crises.

Establishing embassies in Pyongyang and Tehran would give the United States far greater opportunities for espionage.  The reality is that a significant number of U.S. diplomats posted in foreign countries are intelligence agents.  The same would be true in Iran and North Korea if we had a diplomatic presence there.  For that benefit, if no other, the United States should try to normalize relations with the two countries.

The standard objection is that it would confer legitimacy on odious regimes.  By itself, diplomatic recognition in no way implies that Americans consider the other government to be moral and freedom loving.  The United States has relations with China and Saudi Arabia—hardly paragons of political liberalism and enlightenment.  Maintaining a diplomatic relationship merely accepts the reality (as unpleasant as it might be) that the government in question controls a country that is relevant (in a positive or negative way) to important American interests.  The current political system in North Korea has been in power for more than 60 years; the one in Iran, for 27 years.  As much as we might wish it were otherwise, it is time to make the best of bad situations.  We should move to normalize relations with both countries as soon as possible.