North Korea’s latest round of nuclear bellicosity, almost lost amid the overwhelming news focus on Boston but watched closely by leaders in Jerusalem, is a huge wild card in the high-stakes US-Israel game over how to stop Iran from following the same dangerous path.

While some in Israel suggest North Korea’s reckless threats prove negotiation with nuclear madmen is folly, the renewed crisis demonstrates more clearly than ever that the only kind of military action likely to stop these powers – allout military involvement – is something the American people won’t welcome in the wake of two prolonged and unpopular wars in that part of the world.

And that’s the worst possible news for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who would dearly love for the United States to take care of Israel’s Iran problem.

North Korea’s young, untested dictator, Kim Jong Un, has been escalating his country’s all-too-familiar and all-toodangerous nuclear brinkmanship for internal consumption, to solidify his status as the new deity of the hermit kingdom, and to wrest concessions from the United States.

Pyongyang is looking for US recognition, massive economic aid and the removal of international sanctions, but the Obama administration insists that in light of the North’s long history of broken promises it must first destroy its nuclear arsenal. North Korea says its nukes are nonnegotiable.

For a while the world seemed to teeter on the brink of a nuclear precipice, and then, in a cloud of smoke in Boston, it seemed to disappear.

But not everyone moved on to the next crisis.

Two countries with a keen interest in happenings on the Korean peninsula were Iran and Israel.

Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) when it was caught cheating, and announced it possessed nuclear weapons. The George W. Bush administration negotiated several denuclearization agreements but the North consistently cheated and reneged on its commitments. There were economic sanctions but no military consequences.

Netanyahu saw North Korean behavior as a lesson for dealing with Iran: “We have recently seen the results of a wild regime that possesses nuclear weapons.

We have also seen that heavy sanctions are not always effective against a sufficiently determined regime.”

If a small, poor pariah state can build and detonate nuclear weapons with impunity, what’s to stop a big, rich one like Iran from doing the same? Are nukes a valuable insurance policy or an invitation to war? A common link between Iran and North Korea is Pakistan, the world’s most notorious nuclear proliferator. Experts say there has been a steady traffic in nuclear and missile scientists, engineers and technology among them.

The greatest threat facing the Iranian regime is internal, said a nuclear policy expert who tracks developments those countries. There is no major outside enemy about to overthrow the ayatollahs; Bush made sure of that when he removed Saddam Hussein, he said.

“If [Iran] thought the main threat came from the outside they would have paid the steep price associated with exiting the NPT and building the bomb. North Korea is the only one ever to do that, and it is not an attractive model for anyone,” he said. “At the same time the Iranians do want to intimidate their neighbors and hedge against a possible future American military threat, so they’re not going to give up the bomb option entirely.

Ambiguity suits them.”

“North Korea has learned it cannot be physically stopped from building the bomb. It can only be punished for it.

One lesson Iran can take from North Korea is staying inside the NPT. Ambiguity may not solve all their problems, but it is a heck of a lot more attractive than the NK pariah alternative,” he noted.

Chris Nelson, editor of the Nelson Report on Asian trade and policy, said the lesson for Iran from North Korea is brinkmanship. “Scare the United States, the Europeans and the Saudis sufficiently that Tehran is getting ready to jump the divide and then Washington will agree to a real grand bargain – end to sanctions, end to hostility and full recognition – whether Bibi wants it or not, in order to block a real Iranian nuke.”

He sees no way Iran can expect to become integrated into the world economy if it goes nuclear, and that is a major incentive for Tehran not to follow Pyongyang’s example.

To help tighten the screws on the Iranians, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went to Israel this week to reiterate that Washington and Jerusalem see the Iranian threat “exactly the same” and there is “no daylight” between them. He repeated US willingness to use force, and announced Israel will be getting a new generation of aerial refueling tankers and advanced anti-radar missiles to destroy air defense sites.

Hagel was an important messenger because many Israelis consider him an opponent of the use of force and an advocate of containment, which the president and Israelis have repeatedly rejected.

While Washington refuses to negotiate with North Korea until it puts its nukes on the table, it is anxious to cut a deal with Iran, which denies it has any plans to build a bomb but insists on keeping the rest of its nuclear program. With no discernible progress in talks between Iran and the major powers it is hard to dispute the Israeli claim that Tehran is playing out the clock so its centrifuges can keep spinning out enriched uranium.

Diplomacy failed to deter North Korea from going nuclear, and there has been no military penalty. Most in the West believe the Iranians are bluffing when they deny planning to build a bomb, and the Iranians believe the West is bluffing when it threatens to attack.

They can look at North Korea and conclude that diplomacy is the way to buy time to build the nukes that will give them immunity from attack and the power they seek to advance their goals of regional dominance.

That makes its neighbors, Arab and Jew alike, very nervous.

©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

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