October 12, 2003


Iran and North Korea: the next targets?: Despite its problems in Iraq, the United States continues to focus on the nuclear ambitions of the other two ‘axis of evil’ states, North Korea and Iran. In the context of its doctrine of pre-emption, and the reluctance of the eight existing nuclear weapons states to disarm, can another dangerous conflict be averted? (Paul Rogers, 9 - 10 - 2003, Open Democracy)

Although the United States continues to face major difficulties in Iraq, the Bush administration’s attitude to the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains firm: if it considers a country to be a threat to the US or its interests, and if that country is developing nuclear weapons, then pre-emptive military action is one option that will be actively considered and even implemented. [...]

One key aspect is a perception from Tehran that the attitude of the US and other western nuclear states is frankly hypocritical. Iran sees itself as a major and historic state of the region facing a heavily-armed United States which now has forces to its east (Afghanistan), west (Iraq) and south (the Gulf). Its leadership’s sense of vulnerability is increased by the fact that Israel shares the US’s hardline sentiments towards it. Indeed, Israel has made veiled threats of action against Iran if the United States itself refrains from military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, whether or not the latter’s purpose is energy supply alone.

Iran also sees Britain and France content to pursue their own nuclear ambitions while ignoring the powerful Israeli nuclear forces, and having little to say about those of India and Pakistan. The end result of this is a degree of cynicism even among the more moderate opinion-formers in Iran; and a reinforced determination among conservative elements that Iranians must unite in the face of a stated threat from the United States and Israel.

Any room for countries like Britain and France to ameliorate the excesses of Washington’s war on the “axis of evil” is limited by their own nuclear status and what is widely seen across the Middle East as a two-faced attitude. The tensions inherent in this situation would be eased substantially if these countries were more clearly willing to embrace multilateral progress towards nuclear disarmament as covered by the non-proliferation treaty.

In the absence of such a move, there is a persistent perception in the Middle East that these two countries also operate according to a principle of “do as I say, not as I do”. This perception really does limit the ability of Britain, for example, to have much impact on Iranian policy. For the moment, there is not much prospect of change, but it is worth noting that one effect of the US tendency towards pre-emption may have been to propel North Korea down the very nuclear weapons path that it sought to avoid.

Even though Iranian society and power politics are more complex than North Korean, a similar effect is possible there. This would make some form of military action by the United States or Israel against Iran an increasingly likely prospect. The dangerous consequences of such an outcome could greatly exceed even those now being experienced in Iraq.

Mr. Rogers is right to this extent: it should be U.S. policy to deproliferate in Pakistan, China, and France, by force if necessary. Only those nations on the front line in the war on Islamicist terror need be allowed to retain nuclear weapons.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2003 5:49 PM

it is worth noting that one effect of the US tendency towards pre-emption may have been to propel North Korea down the very nuclear weapons path that it sought to avoid.


Posted by: Brian (MN) at October 12, 2003 6:00 PM

The issue in Iran is simple: can we (will we) remove their nuclear capability without a repeat of the "Death to America" frenzy of 1979? Who knows? If we conclude that the mullahs are isolated enough and paranoid enough to use their weapons, we would probably take out their capability regardless. After all, we do have troops all around them. What are they going to do - ask the Russians to help them?

It's funny that Europeans and third-world countries jeer at Bush (like they did at Reagan) about being a nuclear cowboy. The only reason they can say that is because they know we won't use our nuclear weapons. If they seriously thought otherwise, their chants would be considerably more polite.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 12, 2003 6:37 PM

It seems to me the ideal operation would be a combined Israel/U.S. one - Israel to send a dummy raid of F16s to cover B52 high-altitude precision bombing by the U.S.. The Israelis would get the world blame, which they seem willing to accept anyway, shielding the U.S., while they get the assurance of a truly massive strike, which would be difficult for them to carry out with fighters.

Posted by: jd watson at October 12, 2003 10:44 PM