Obama Will Ask Saudis to Help Avert a Nuclear Pandemic
More than any other pressing global issue, President Barack Obama must find a way to check the crushing landslide set off by North Korea's underground nuclear test Monday, May 25. Hence his sudden decision to go to Saudi Arabia as soon as June 3 and seek the counsel of King Abdullah.
He believes the Saudi king may hold the key to staving off the next looming specter – if it is not too late: a nuclear proliferation pandemic.
North Korea is impervious to sanctions – even if the Security Council could agree on a strong text with teeth. Diplomacy is routinely aborted by the rogue Kim Jong-Il regime before it goes its course.
Since China and Russia are unwilling – or unable – to restrain Pyongyang and chances are nil for the six-party talks on its nuclear program to restart any time soon, the US president must look to his next line of defense, namely Iran. His talks with the Saudi king are critical for determining the possible prospects of holding Iran in check.
This task is complicated by the fact that Washington has been in official denial about the interaction between the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs from the days of the Bush presidency. The US has also chosen to soft-pedal the weighty Chinese factor in Iran's nuclear equation.
Therefore, the Americans have leaned hard on Russia to stop succoring Iran's nuclear activities whereas they never made a fuss about China's far more extensive nuclear and missile technology input in both of Tehran's programs.
Even now, US officials are not admitting that Beijing is abstaining from pushing Pyongyang really hard to abandon its nuclear momentum so as not to face America pressure to deal equally with Tehran.
So Moscow and Beijing are not much use to the Obama administration in the present crisis.
Saudi, Egyptian help enlisted on Iran
The US president is thus left to struggle with a couple of tall orders: One is to persuade Japan, Taiwan and South Korea not to join a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia. The second, which Obama is treating as top priority, is warding off a major spurt in the Middle East-Gulf nuclear arms race and an Iranian copycat underground nuclear test.
Hence his personal SOS to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Riyadh on June 3 and Cairo June 4 (for his speech to the Muslim world).
Clearly, the North Korean test has turned White House thinking on its head with startling speed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources note.
In the first week of May, although Washington had been tipped off to the coming underground test in North Korea, administration officials still believed that Special Envoy Dennis Ross could persuade Gulf and Middle East capitals that Obama's policy of diplomacy would pay off sufficiently to halt Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon in step with North Korea.
It soon turned out that Ross was not senior enough to carry weight; defense secretary Robert Gates was accordingly sent out to Cairo, Riyadh and some Gulf capitals from May 4 to 6. He met the same sardonic skepticism as Ross.
In the case of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak it was more anger: He warned that current US policy would be the direct cause of Iran going nuclear and speeding up of the Middle East nuclear race which had already begun.
US tells Israel: Leave Iran to us
While Ross and Gates trod Arab halls of government, the Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta flew to Jerusalem on an equally pressing mission: North Korea was about to conduct its second nuclear test, more powerful than the first, he informed Israeli leaders. However, just as the Obama administration intended to exercise restraint toward North Korea, so too Israel must refrain from haring off and jumping to conclusions about Iran following suit with its own test this year or next.
Just leave it to Washington to handle, was the main burden of Panetta's message to Israel.
In other words, the US administration had known about the forthcoming North Korean nuclear test in early May, or before, and was also aware that Iran might well be moved to follow suit. Its main concern, however, was to prevent Israel from rocking Obama's boat.
The Obama administration did not suffer from a shortage of intelligence on the intertwining of Iranian-North Korean nuclear planning. Washington knew in early May that a delegation of Iranian nuclear scientists and technicians has arrived in North Korea ready to witness preparations for the May 25 test. They observed the nuclear device being lowered deep into the ground at the Kilju testing facility near the Chinese border, and were admitted to the North Korean control center to watch the test from there.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources report that spectator privileges in North Korea were no novelty for Iranian nuclear personnel. For the past four years, they have been sending experts to attend each other's important nuclear and missile-related occurrences on a regular basis. Senior Iranian missile figures viewed the long-range Taepodong-2 missile's test-launch over the Pacific on April 5. Visitors from Pyongyang's program were present for the test-fire of the Iranian Sejil 2 missile on May 20.
July 10 – a date for watching Tehran
Panetta, having relayed his message, rejected the data his Israeli interlocutors offered: They informed him that Iran had overtaken the North Koreans in the weaponization of a nuclear device. Tehran, they reported, was already into the experimental manufacture of warheads of the right size and format for mounting on missiles. The North Koreans had not yet reached that stage. This was proved by the payload Iran's Omid satellite carried when launched into space on January 3. The Israelis told the CIA chief that if the Iranians can place satellites into space, they can also mount warheads on missiles capable of striking any point on earth.
But Panetta made it clear that Washington does not want this information.
The view from the Middle East is different.
When Pyongyang test-launched its long-range Taepodong-2 over the Pacific Ocean on April 5, Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli intelligence experts were of one mind that a similar Iranian test was imminent.
And indeed, six weeks later, on May 20, Iran fired its 2,000-km range Sejil 2 missile, which demonstrated pinpoint accuracy attesting to the Iranian product's technological superiority to its North Korean counterpart – even though its guidance system incorporates North Korean as well as Chinese components.
Now Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem are again counting off weeks in an effort to estimate the date of Iran's first nuclear test.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources say the math is simple: Pyongyang's long-range missile and underground nuclear tests were exactly 50 days apart. They fully believe Iran will be eager to keep pace. Therefore, Tehran may try and shock the world with a nuclear test 50 days after the Sejil launch – that is, from July 10 on. Alternatively, the rulers of the Islamic Republic may want to hold the threat of an underground nuclear test as blackmail over the US-Iranian dialogue which should by then have started.
(A contrary opinion to this estimate is presented in the next item.)
In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, Tehran proposes to outdo Pyongyang in intransigence.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinjejad played his opening shot on May 25, the day of the North Korean nuclear test, when he said he would glad to enter into international negotiations on any world issue with one exception: “Iran's nuclear issue is closed,” he announced.