The two-year old open secret of a North Korean nuclear weapon is a secret no more. Wednesday, February 2, Pyongyang acknowledged publicly for the first time it has nuclear arms. The North Koreans suspended indefinitely their participation in the six-nation disarmament talks, saying nuclear weapons are necessary protection against an increasingly hostile United States.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice advised the North Koreans to avoid the path toward further isolation. The US president, she noted, has said America has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea.
Pyongyang’s action broadcast four key signals:
1. North Korea is not the first but the fourth nuclear power to rise in Asia, after China, India and Pakistan.
2. Asia’s balance of strength has shifted to the detriment of Japanese security, which is now hemmed in by two nuclear powers, China and North Korea.
3. Pyongyang’s “outing” negates the importance the Bush administration attaches to Libya’s disarmament.
4. It strengthens Tehran’s hand against Western pressure to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. DEBKA-Net-Weekly has long contended that Iran treads in North Korea’s footsteps – and not only in the origin of its missiles.
The response to the Pyongyang announcement from Europe and the Middle East differed from that of the United States. The two regions would be in range of Iranian missiles delivering nuclear warheads. Questions are asked by military and strategic leaders in both whether the American-backed EU-3 diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon uranium enrichment for its weapons program will be broken off in 2006 or 2007 by Tehran’s announcement that it already has a nuclear bomb, an echo of North Korea’s admission now. Like Pyongyang, the Iranians would then claim they needed this weapon as protection against a US or Israel attack.
Diplomacy is all
During her visits to European and Middle East capitals in the last nine days, Rice discovered that certain calibrated statements by top US official statements, including herself, have contributed to the suspicion that the Bush administration has suddenly gone soft on Iran’s nuclear program.
Last Thursday, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, in testimony largely devoted to a US “exit strategy” for Iraq, did not point a single accusing finger at Tehran, an atypical omission for the neo-conservative.
At her first stop in London a week ago, Rice stated for the record the United States had no military plans to attack Iran.
Vice president Dick Cheney offered the Islamic republic some fatherly advice over Fox television on Sunday. Touching on Iran’s nuclear program, he urged Tehran to do the “right thing” and agree to “transparency.” Washington could not say with “absolute certainty” that its nuclear-enrichment program had been stopped, he pointed out. Cheney repeated the assurance offered by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice over and over again in statements marking the stops of her lightning weekend tour of European capitals that the preferred US option is the diplomatic effort the European Union's Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) has undertaken to solve the nuclear issue.
Distancing himself sharply from recent Israeli statements on the imminence of Iranian bomb production, Cheney explained that if EU-3 efforts failed, the probable next step would be to refer the matter back to the United Nations' watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And if that too got nowhere, it would be for the UN Security Council to decide on sanctions against Iran.
Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld‘s approach was even milder; he declared that no covert US military operations were underway in Iran. In his view, Iran did not have any nuclear weapon and it could take years to acquire one. Meanwhile, he said, President George W. Bush hoped for the success of diplomacy.
Kid glove over iron fist
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources remain certain, notwithstanding the apparent kid glove, that Washington has not abandoned its iron fist, but merely hidden it up its sleeve.
Away from the media, our sources report that Rice confided to a number of European and Middle Eastern leaders that Bush’s second term would be marked by a tougher line on Iran than his first. The United States, she stressed, would not let Iran have a nuclear weapon. An atomic arsenal in the hands of a belligerent and internationally irresponsible Islamic fundamentalist regime, mounted on the missiles Iran already possesses or intends to build in the future, would imperil not only America and its allies, but also the Middle East and the entire world.
Moreover, she said, nuclear weapons would provide life insurance for a repressive regime that openly supports escalating radical Islamic terror.
Bombarded by mixed signals from Washington, Iran’s leaders decided America was spreading disinformation about its intentions so as to trick the Islamic republic into dropping its guard. On the quiet, Iran’s strongman, Ali Khamenei, ordered a policy reassessment to promote plans for terrorist attacks inside the United States and ratchet up Islamic terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
But for public consumption, Tehran tried sweet reason.
Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was told to set a pacific tone in an interview to a US newspaper, another round in the game of charades Iran has been playing for years, implying that Tehran might restore good relations with the “great Satan” if Bush “behaved nicely”.
This note was echoed by Hassan Rouhani, secretary of the national security council and leader of negotiations with the EU-3 and International Atomic Energy Agency. He named Iran’s terms for renewing normal ties with Washington.
Europe is closing gap with American hard line
Defense minister Ali Shamkhani then popped up to join the chorus.
In a long interview to the official Iranian news agency IRNA, he asserted that nuclear weapons would contribute nothing to Iran’s security, only jeopardize it, and the government had decided in principle never to produce atomic arms.
British prime minister Tony Blair was having none of it and made his toughest comments to date on Iran. Echoing Bush, he told a British parliamentary subcommittee that Iran was governed by a terrorist regime out to destroy the Middle East peace process and build nuclear weapons.
Blair spoke ahead of a third round of talks between the EU-3 and Iran that began Tuesday, February 8 and was due to wind up Friday, February 11.
Behind the scenes, the Iranians for their part were extremely pessimistic about the negotiations getting them off the hook, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources. Accusations against Europe flew at secret national security council meetings, in which Khamenei himself and senior radical clerics took part.
Europe, they said, was conspiring to trick Iran into permanently halting uranium enrichment after pretending to accept its six-month freeze.
The Johmouri-E Eslami of Tehran, Khamenei’s regular mouthpiece, declared this week that Iran must resort to every weapon necessary to stand up to the United States and other enemies. Rouhani boasted that any American attackers would find Iran’s nuclear facilities transferred to underground, bombproof tunnels built under the country’s tallest mountain ranges.
The view from Washington is that the Europeans are steadily closing the gap between their own and America’s uncompromising position on Iran’s nuclear program. On her European trip this week, Rice studied a possible military or diplomatic coalition against an Iranian atomic threat. For the time being, the Iranians are clandestinely continuing their uranium enrichment process and advancing undisturbed on their goal of nuclear arms.