By Harlan Ullman
In English slang, “pickle” means a bad situation or a state of disorder. The provenance is Shakespeare’s Tempest. And pickle well applies to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Iran and U.S. policy.
Last week, Pyongyang announced it had exploded another nuclear device measuring about 10 kilotons, smaller than the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. How close North Korea is to “weaponizing” a bomb is unknowable as is whether or not this test remains a highly dangerous science experiment.
Despite the huff and puff of the second Bush administration over preventing North Korea from exploding a nuclear device, today, no one seems terribly perturbed. China is in a key position to restrain North Korea but has not so acted. While Japan and South Korea have a nuclear “breakout” capacity, there are no signs that an arms race will follow. So, no matter the rhetoric, North Korea has become the newest, uncontested member of the nuclear club nearly two decades after Pakistan joined.
This absence of urgency is far from lacking regarding Iran and its nuclear intentions. The confirmation hearings for former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense clearly established that “containment” of Iran was not an option and that military force to deny Tehran a bomb was surely on the table. Sanctions have tightened and no doubt are imposing pain on many Iranians. Whether the ayatollocracy has been affected or not, for the time being, Tehran has been recalcitrant on negotiations and inspections.
So why are Washington and most other states so laid back about North Korea and adamant to stop Iran? Aside from this being an unfair world and North Korea’s fait accompli, Pyongyang threatens the south with a highly destructive war in which many, many Koreans would die. The Gulf is different.
Proponents of the preventive strategy vis a vis Iran predict that should Tehran build or test a nuclear weapon, containing further proliferation in the region will be impossible. Saudi Arabia and many Gulf states, fearing a Shia bomb against a Sunni world, will see no choice except to build or buy their own. Israel with a substantial and unacknowledged stockpile of nuclear weapons will see an Iranian bomb as existential raising the risks and uncertainties. And, in this line of argument, Iran’s allies—Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas–will feel empowered to act even more aggressively.
Further, while North Korea’s boy leader Kim Jung Eun is not seen as responsible or worse, Ayatollah Khameini and his lot are considered unstable and even half mad by some in the West. Does this story sound familiar? Just ten years ago, the United States was days away from launching a “war of choice” against Saddam Hussein on similar grounds particularly Iraq’s secret program for acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Does the phrase “mushroom shaped cloud” bring back any memories of the posturing by the second Bush administration for war?
During the Cold War, what could have been worse than the Soviet Union developing nuclear weapons? After 1949 when Moscow tested its first, the answer was Red China. After 1964 when Beijing joined the nuclear club, the well-tested and safer doctrine of deterrence was applied rather than preemptive war. And the Soviet Union had many tens of thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons that could have destroyed much of society as we knew it.
Iran is not the Soviet Union or Red China. And it is not North Korea. Still, the U.S. would be derelict if it ignored the lessons of the Cold and the Gulf War to disarm Saddam before electing to attack Iran. Given the nature of the region and the many religious, ethnic and politic conflicts including the spread of Jihadist extremism and an ongoing civil war in Syria, not to mention the vast oil and natural gas reserves, of course, much is at stake.
At some point, no alternative to military force could arise. Should Tehran emulate Saddam by defying demands for inspection and continues to enrich uranium, Washington could become convinced that disarming Iran and eliminating its capacity for making nuclear weapons is unavoidable. And, as a decade ago, some might argue that a disarming series of strikes could be a “cakewalk” with little likelihood of serious retaliation.
All that could be true. And Iran might eventually back down if the ayatollahs were persuaded to believe that the U.S. would use force and in the process overthrow its sectarian leadership. Unfortunately, the historical record does not support the case for preemption to the degree history is relevant.
Washington is indeed caught in a pickle between Pyongyang and Tehran. This time however, unlike ten years ago, let us hope that greater thought goes into whatever decision Washington ultimately takes.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.