Will Israel Wake up One Morning to a Nuclear-Armed Iran?
The underground nuclear explosion North Korea carried out early Monday, Oct. 9, confronts US president George W. Bush with one problem that has run out of control and another, Iran’s nuclear program, which soon will.
The European-Russian-Chinese insistence on diplomacy with Iran – no sanctions, no military action – is close to reaching the same dead end as did the talks with North Korea conducted by the US, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. The negotiators who condemn North Korea today were deaf to Kim Jong Il’s assertions of intent. He used the time fruitfully to drive forward to target. Iran is not there yet – but Tehran is using the current climate of international passivity to race ahead to the point of no return.
As recently as late July, when North Korea tested its nuclear-capable Taepodong ballistic missiles which can reach Alaska, the Bush administration warned Pyongyang not to fire any more, else the American navy would be ordered to intercept them.
Washington’s response went no further than words.
China and Russia did their utmost to hold the United States back from a strong reaction including a military option to the Korean nuclear program, exactly as they are doing in Iran’s case. They have been successful. To further anesthetize Western concerns, intelligence sources in Moscow leaked word to the Western media Sunday, one day before the actual test, that Pyongyang’s nuclear test was three months away and its announcement could be dismissed as a mere device to buy time.
As a result, the United States, Japan and South Korea now find themselves within range of a North Korean nuclear missile attack.
The implications go beyond the purely military; Japan’s rating as the world’s second financial and economic power, has suddenly plummeted to that of a nation within range of a hostile nuclear power, which it is helpless to resist. Japan is therefore considering the unthinkable: launching its own nuclear program.
The threat to South Korea’s cities and economy is even more immediate. It shares a border with a nation which fields a much larger and better-equipped army that from now ranks as a nuclear power. Kim Jong Il has taught Seoul and Tokyo that wealth and economic strength do not necessarily buy national security.
South Korea immediately placed its armed forces on a war footing. Washington, which refused to confirm a nuclear test had been carried out for several hours after the event, merely stated: “No assets in the region are being redeployed pending intelligence analysis confirming a nuclear test was carried out” – a classical dilatory maneuver.
The “assets” – 40,000 US soldiers based in South Korea, as well as the Japan facility and US air and naval forces in the Far East – have been put on a high state of preparedness. It was expected in Washington that the UN Security Council would be convened in emergency session before the end of the day.
Australia has said the test “destabilizes the region”, while India called it a threat to peace.
US President George W. Bush responded slowly because he has several hard nuts to crack. Tougher economic sanctions against North Korea have proved ineffective and would signal weakness and vacillation. At least half a million people have perished there from starvation without their hard-line rulers turning a hair. North Korea is in any case completely isolated from the global economy and dependence on world markets, barring only China and Russia which oppose sanctions. Beijing itself was given only 20 minutes notice before the test and passed the word to the US embassy as a courtesy.
Bush also knows that a military attack would evoke an immediate North Korean invasion of the South and a potential nuclear conflict. The US president would have to carefully calculate whether America, which is already embroiled in three wars – Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror – can handle a third.
Tehran is quietly watching to see how the North Korea crisis plays out. The ayatollahs will take Washington’s response to the North Korean test as a measure of its reaction to the progress of its own nuclear plans. They know they can count on massive Chinese support against tough international measures. Despite its denials, Russia is actively abetting Iran in the development of its nuclear capabilities. Beijing is still more directly involved, supplying Iran with nuclear materials, and technology and advanced centrifuges, as well as technology for sophisticated weapons and missile systems.
The European Union refuses to go any further on punitive measures against Iran for cheating on its international commitments than “soft sanctions.”
As things stand now, Iran can go forward with its plans for nuclear armament comfortably without fear of obstruction or even much economic harm.
As for Israelis, in the three months since the outbreak of the Lebanon war, they have become accustomed to being told time and again that “the international community” will take care of the Iranian nuclear threat, like all other the major hazards to its national security – whether from Lebanon, Gaza or Syria. The North Korean test has now brought home to Israelis how little the international community can be trusted when it comes to the crunch.
Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister Tzipi Livni are not the first Israeli leaders to dump the Iranian issue in the international lap. None of their predecessors made any real effort to nip the Iranian nuclear threat in the bud when it could still be stopped cold or at least slowed down. There is still a short time left to take action before Israelis wake up one morning – as did North Koreans and Japanese Monday, Oct. 9 – to find they ware living under a dark nuclear shadow – only for Israel a nuclear Iran will be less a shadow than a mortal threat to its very existence.