DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The parallels between Iran and North Korea would seem to riff off the same West-rattling script: start a nuclear program, test some long-range missiles, demand international respect.
But the latest mirror moment for the two nations — nabbing Americans accused of straying across the border — shows that the symmetry goes only so far.
The type of star-power mission by former President Bill Clinton this week to free two U.S. journalists is far less likely — but perhaps not impossible — to try to aid three Americans detained by Iranian authorities last week after allegedly wandering over the frontier during a hike in northern Iraq.
The differences, analysts say, include the complexities of dealing with Iran's mix of ruling clerics, elected politicos and military commanders, rather than a one-stop strongman such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il.
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And the timing couldn't be more difficult. The meltdown after June's disputed election has left Iran's leadership embattled and alleging that foreign "enemies" — read: the United States and its allies — are behind the nation's worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Iran is far more complicated politically for this kind of outside-the-government mercy mission," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. "In North Korea, you have a one-man show. In Iran, you have to deal with the entire system, not just one man."
That doesn't mean Iran would necessarily snub a personal appeal from a big-name envoy, he added.
"There's always room for beyond-the-state diplomacy," Abdulla said. "It's part of Iranian and Islamic culture to be amenable to these kind of gestures. ... Stuff like this could actually break the ice and move them forward."
Iran is holding the three Americans for illegally entering the country last week, and authorities are investigating whether to bring far more serious charges of espionage.
The State Department has dismissed any allegations of spying against the three, and a security official in Iraq's Kurdish region, Hakim Qadir Humat Jan, said they were tourists who "simply made a mistake" while trekking in an area where the border is poorly marked.
In North Korea, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor after being detained in March at a border area while working on a story about human trafficking.
The stories are different, but each became convenient fodder in the wider international muscle-flexing of both Tehran's theocracy and Pyongyang's autocracy.
Their goals are not far apart — a hunger for full international recognition, including humbling concessions from Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with either country.
"We must play a key role in the management of the world," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in his inauguration speech Wednesday — as riot police outside parliament battled protesters claiming that his re-election was secured by massive vote-rigging.
"We will not remain silent," he added. "We will not tolerate disrespect, interference and insults."
In North Korea, Kim apparently used Clinton's mission to dispel rumors that his health was in steep decline.
An expert on North Korean affairs, Paik Hak-soon, said Washington's struggles with the small and impoverished totalitarian state is "much more simple" than with powerful and strategic Iran — one of the world's leading oil producers.
"Iran's confrontation with the U.S. is related to Israel, the whole Middle Eastern issue and European interests as well," said Paik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea. "But in the case of North Korea, it's a one-on-one standoff."
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, has sharply criticized the Clinton mission as sending a message that regimes at odds with America can attract high-level attention through crisis.
"While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release," Bolton wrote in a commentary in The Washington Post.
But some experts believe the same formula used in North Korea could work in Iran.
"It could be very easy to open dialogue with the proper approach," said Kivanc Galips Over, editor of the Diplomatic Observer, a Web site and magazine that follows regional affairs from Ankara, Turkey.