But what the cables also suggested, in the way they presented China as a glimmer of hope in the North Korea crisis, was the dearth of good options the United States has to choose from as it seeks to address the challenges posed by an aggressive and misbehaving state that happens to possess nuclear weapons. The same intractability characterizes another relationship the US faces in an even more unstable part of the world – the three decades of antagonism with Iran.
In a world of more than 190 nations, many of them problematic, North Korea and Iran remain in a class of their own for the US – charter members of the "rogue states" club, a list that has dwindled over the past decade with the subtraction of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and a defanged Libya.
The particulars of the North Korean and Iranian challenges make them different in significant ways. But in an era when non-state actors like Al Qaeda have emerged as top international security threats, North Korea and Iran remain the two starkest outliers in the global community of states because of several factors they share in common – factors that make them particularly difficult to address.
Both North Korea and Iran remain in long and hardened conflicts with the US, the world's sole superpower. Both are sustained economically in a manner that staves off collapse – North Korea by its patron state, China; Iran by its oil wealth. Both have an identity that makes reconciliation with outside adversaries more difficult. North Korea appears motivated by a desire to safeguard a regime of privileged elites, while Iran sees itself as a global rebel with a cause: the leader of a broad Islamic revolution and defiant promoter of a new global order no longer dominated by traditional powers.