What everyone feared was the case has now been proven to be fact. North Korea deliberately sank a South Korean patrol boat, killing 46 sailors and risking a war between these two countries (and by extension the United States). This is not simply North Korea, as usual, behaving badly. It is the predictable consequence of Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and of the Western approach to nonproliferation.
The North Korean nuclear program has always been as much for political purposes as it has been to shore up its security. The fall of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China left the regime in Pyongyang without strong patronage. It also undermined the regime’s dominant mythology which defined the North as a vanguard state in the global march of Leninist-style communism. To what end was all the suffering of the North Korean people, the purges and death camps, the mass starvation, if the proletarian revolution was not to be and North Korea was an irrelevant, backwater nation? The regime needed to secure itself against the capitalist onslaught that ideology said was coming but, more important, it needed to reassert itself as a relevant player in the region. Finally, it also had to demonstrate the value of the North Korean principle of Juche, or self-sufficiency. The result was the regime’s all-out program to acquire nuclear weapons.
The rest of the world contributed to the flow of events that led to the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel. North Korea has been able to garner world attention, including visits by former U.S. presidents, when it behaves badly. Nothing illustrates this more than the way the negotiating efforts that followed the North’s violation of its NPT obligations. Six-party talks with their promises of gifts to the North in return for its denuclearization served only to bolster Pyongyang as the nuclear sun around which the great powers spun. When the attention of the world flagged or the North failed to receive sufficient psychic or tangible benefits from its negotiating partners, it upped the ante. Having been repeatedly rewarded for its bad behavior, it is no suprise that Pyongyang would, like Pavlov’s dog, ring that bell again.
The March 26 attack served a number of the North’s needs. It confirmed to the people of the Korean peninsula that the North was still engaged in a war against the South and its allies. It allowed Pyongyang to demonstrate yet again that it could thumb its nose at more powerful countries. It suggested that the South’s economic miracle was less important than the North’s relentless militarization since the former could not defend itself. It refocused world attention on the Korean peninsula and, most important, it demonstrated that the effort to acquire nuclear-arms had value. Even when it has suffered a deliberate and unprovoked attack, South Korea and its American ally refrain from resorting to military action for fear of precipitating a nuclear conflict. This must provide the insulated, sociopathic leadership of North Korea with a tremendous sense of power.
Take the model of North Korean brinksmanship demonstrated by its sinking of the South Korean Navy vessel and apply it to Iran and the Middle East. Both nations see themselves as unique players on the world stage. They desire that their respective regions, but really the entire world, revolve around them. Both engage in confrontational behavior precisely in order to provoke reactions. Both justify and even encourage punitive measures such as sanctions in order to justify their isolation from the world community and their militancy. Both need a protective shield under which they can engage in an undeclared war against their enemies. The North has such a shield. Iran is on its way to getting one.
The theocracy that rules in Teheran has a vision of itself that requires dominance in the region. The justification for political repression at home and support for terrorism and insurgencies abroad is the regime’s messianic self-concept. Like the North, Iran’s identity and that of the regime is defined in terms of its conflict with others. Conflict there must be until the rogue regimes triumph. It is the nation that can successfully defy the Great Satan and all its minions, particularly Israel. Sanctions on Iran are merely evidence of the West’s malevolent intent. By extension, ineffective sanctions are evidence of the West’s weakness, not its benevolence. The new round of sanctions agreed to at the U.N. will only fuel Teheran’s view of its importance and power.
An Iran with nuclear weapons would behave like North Korea only worse. Teheran will expect both increased Western hostility, including even expanded efforts to destabilize the regime, but also more Western efforts to buy it off. Iran will also have to demonstrate the tangible benefits of its nuclear arsenal in the struggle against the Great Satan, Israel and its Islamic foes such as Saudi Arabia. The result will be an increase in provocative behavior, even an effort to provoke military confrontations with Iran’s neighbors and the West. Iran may even attempt to extend a nuclear umbrella over states such as Syria and client groups such as Hezbollah, allowing these countries to engage in acts of war against Israel. How long will it be before this kind of game playing leads to a real war? When that happens it is impossible to say that nuclear weapons will not be used.
The United States is rushing to stabilize the security of its friends and allies in the region. It is providing missile defense capabilities to partner countries such as the UAE which is acquiring the THAAD missile defense system. The Obama Administration is providing additional funding to Israel for that country’s Iron Dome system. There are plans to deploy missile defenses based on the Aegis/Standard Missile ship-based missile defense system to Eastern Europe and, perhaps, the Persian Gulf. These steps are necessary but are certain to be insufficient to deter an Iran with nuclear weapons. As the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, acknowledged in a recently leaked internal memo, the Obama Administration has no strategy for dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.
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