When President George W. Bush first stated in 2002 that Iran and North Korea were joined in an "axis of evil," there was much snickering, not only at the use of moralistic language, but at the implication that such disparate countries were in any way connected.
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, for example, called Bush's comments "a big mistake" and pointed out that "first of all, they [Iran, Iraq and North Korea] are very different from each other."
They certainly are different, but the connections between the two remaining axis regimes are real.
Among the missiles that North Korea test-fired this week were short-range Scud-C missiles and intermediate range Rodong missiles, both of which, The New York Times reports, North Korea has sold to Iran, Pakistan and other nations.
North Korea is not only one of the most repressive regimes on earth - thousands of refugees have risked death even to escape to communist China - but, writes Nicholas Eberstadt, "enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only urbanized and literate society in human history to suffer mass famine during peacetime."
The regime has openly announced that its survival strategy consists of amassing, amid starvation, military power. It hopes that it can, by threatening as many countries as possible and exporting nuclear know-how and missiles, continue to extort assistance from the international community.
This strategy should sound familiar, because it is also that of Iran. While Iran, thanks to its oil, is hardly in the same financial straits, the mullahs are even more dangerous because they combine ambitions for nuclear blackmail with an expansionist ideology and active support for international terrorism. Both Iran and North Korea have a strong interest in maximizing nuclear and missile proliferation, thereby multiplying the headaches of the West, particularly of the United States.
Though this week's North Korean missile tests may have caught many by surprise, Washington seems to have had ample warning. On June 22, two former senior Clinton era officials, former assistant defense secretary Ashton Carter and former defense secretary William Perry, wrote in The Washington Post that "North Korean technicians are reportedly in the final stages of fueling a long-range ballistic missile that some experts estimate can deliver a deadly payload to the United States."
The pair proposed that the US launch a preemptive strike and destroy the missiles on their launch pads. "A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea even further. The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles," they wrote.
As it happened, the long-range Taepodong missile fizzled and fell into the sea shortly after launch. It would be surprising, however, if the US decided to rely upon future North Korean incompetence to protect against such a direct threat.
Yesterday, North Korea brazenly stated that it would continue to conduct missile tests. Though neighboring countries, such as South Korea, have taken a relatively conciliatory attitude toward North Korean provocations, it is not clear why the US would allow North Korea to continue to develop and test a missile whose only and declared purpose is to reach the US mainland.
This particular provocation coincided not only with US Independence Day, but with the July 12 US-European ultimatum to Iran to respond to its carrot-and-stick package. This package has become quite sweet, including direct talks with the US and support for Iran's "right" to develop nuclear energy.
The timing reasonably led the Times to speculate that North Korea's "core goal was simply to ratchet up the pressure for greater aid and diplomatic recognition, perhaps mirroring the Western incentives offered to Iran to suspend its nuclear program." Attempts to engage and bribe Iran and North Korea into better behavior appear not only to be failing, but to be spurring those nations to greater levels of belligerency.
The US would be entirely within its rights to follow Carter's and Perry's advice and to state that any further launches, at least of long-range missiles, will be prevented. Regarding Iran, there should be no further extensions of deadlines; the US and Europe should, either through the UN Security Council or on their own, impose stiff and escalating sanctions on Iran to force that nation to end its campaign of nuclear and terrorist blackmail.