Secretary of State John Kerry called for a “swift, clear, strong and credible response” to last week’s North Korean nuclear test and said America’s reaction would send a message to Iran.

If that’s true, the message is: “Don’t worry, go nuclear.”

That’s because years of sanctions, resolutions, negotiations, threats, pleas and assorted attempts to influence Pyongyang have produced three atomic bomb explosions, ballistic missiles that can reach the United States and increased belligerency from a nation that thinks itself immune to outside pressure and doesn’t feel obligated to honor its commitments.

The North Korean experience provides a lesson in the risks of overblown rhetoric and the difficulties in devising realistic strategies for preventing extremist regimes and fanatical leaders from crossing the nuclear threshold.

Experts say the latest test was the most successful yet and indicates progress toward producing a warhead for an ICBM. That it came hours before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address can hardly be a coincidence.

The president called the incident a provocation that required a firm response, but gave no indication of anything beyond more of the same.

Kerry warned of “significant action” if Pyongyang tested another bomb or ICBM. “Just as it's impermissible for North Korea [DPRK] to pursue this kind of reckless effort, so we have said it’s impermissible with respect to Iran,” he said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Pentagon news conference, “We have to take steps to make very clear to them that that kind of behavior is unacceptable.”

Again, no specifics, just more rhetoric.

The response from Pyongyang seems to be: You guys can moan and groan and threaten all you wish, we’ve broken every agreement we’ve made with you and nothing happened; you are impotent and can’t stop us. You go blah, blah, blah and we go blast, blast, blast.

As if to make their point for them, Western intelligence sources report the DPRK is preparing for another test firing of a long-range missile and may explode two more nukes before year’s end.

The Iranians – who had their own scientists at the all three North Korean nuclear tests and several missile launchings – are watching to see what, if anything, Kerry had in mind when he called for a “swift, clear, strong and credible response” by the international community.

One of the Iranian scientists believed to have been there was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, considered the father of Iran’s nuclear program and the man responsible for developing a warhead small enough to fit atop a ballistic missile developed by Iran with DPRK help.

If an isolated pariah state like North Korea can ignore all these years of resolutions, sanctions and threats and not only build but detonate its nukes, what’s going to stop a richer country like Iran, with nuclear allies like Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea from doing the same thing? The North Koreans gave Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the news peg he needed to repeat his insistence that “sanctions alone” don’t work and must “be coupled with a robust, credible military threat. If they are not, then there’s no chance to stop them.”

He said Iran will be atop his agenda when President Obama comes to Jerusalem next month.

THERE IS no easy military answer – if that is even the right answer – in either case. Obama knows that after the two longest wars in American history – and with dubious results – the American people don’t want to send their troops into another war. And he knows drones alone can’t do job.

Both Iran and North Korea use diplomacy to stall while they move full speed ahead on their WMD programs.

Iran has consistently sent mixed signals. In recent weeks it announced it is converting some of its enriched uranium into nuclear fuel rods which cannot be used for weapons, while at the same time it revealing it was installing faster, more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility.

UN inspectors left talks in Teheran last week complaining of Iranian refusal to give required access to its nuclear sites and charging Iran was not negotiating in good faith; no new talks are scheduled.

UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon warned that Teheran could use diplomacy to buy time to build a nuclear weapon. “We have seen what happened with the DPRK,” he said.

Israel’s deputy prime minister Dan Meridor said it bodes ill for negotiations between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon that are scheduled to resume next week in Kazakhstan.

He said Washington needs to convince Iran that “all options were still on the table.”

There are noteworthy similarities between Iran and DPRK. Neither has shown any interest in slowing much less halting its nuclear and missile development programs.

Both use negotiations to buy time, not reach compromises, while they continue plowing ahead, and neither takes prior commitments very seriously. For both countries, nukes may be more valuable as leverage to extort concessions from others than as weapons that could provoke regime-destroying retaliation.

There’s no denying a nuclear arsenal has deterrent value, which may make it too important ever to surrender, but it is also highly likely to spark a destabilizing regional nuclear arms race, which raises by several orders of magnitude the risk of nuclear conflict and the chances a terror group could acquire its own.

There’s also a very big difference between the two. DPRK already has the bomb and Iran doesn’t. US policy is to make sure that doesn’t change and President Obama has said all options, including military force, are on the table.

“Iran seems so committed to going nuclear that it has been ready to endure crippling sanctions and risk foreign attack,” according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

Secretary Kerry has said Iran will be watching the response to the latest North Korean nuclear and missile tests. So will the rest of the world.

©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_ bloomfield

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