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North Korea is half a world away from Israel. Yet the nuclear test it conducted on Monday has the Israeli defense establishment up in arms and its Iranian nemesis smiling like the Cheshire Cat. Understanding why this is the case is key to understanding the danger posed by what someone once impolitely referred to as the Axis of Evil.
Less than two years ago, on September 6, 2007, the IAF destroyed a North Korean-built plutonium production facility at Kibar, Syria. The destroyed installation was a virtual clone of North Korea's Yongbyon plutonium production facility.
This past March the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung reported that Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari, who before his March 2007 defection to the US served as a general in Iran's Revolutionary Guards and as deputy defense minister, divulged that Iran paid for the North Korean facility. Teheran viewed the installation in Syria as an extension of its own nuclear program. According to Israeli estimates, Teheran spent between $1 billion and $2b. for the project.
It can be assumed that Iranian personnel were present in North Korea during Monday's test. Over the past several years, Iranian nuclear officials have been on hand for all of North Korea's major tests including its first nuclear test and its intercontinental ballistic missile test in 2006.
Moreover, it wouldn't be far-fetched to think that North Korea conducted some level of coordination with Iran regarding the timing of its nuclear bomb and ballistic missile tests this week. It is hard to imagine that it is mere coincidence that North Korea's actions came just a week after Iran tested its solid fuel Sejil-2 missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers.
Aside from their chronological proximity, the main reason it makes sense to assume that Iran and North Korea coordinated their tests is because North Korea has played a central role in Iran's missile program. Although Western observers claim that Iran's Sejil-2 is based on Chinese technology transferred to Iran through Pakistan, the fact is that Iran owes much of its ballistic missile capacity to North Korea. The Shihab-3 missile, for instance, which forms the backbone of Iran's strategic arm threatening to Israel and its Arab neighbors, is simply an Iranian adaptation of North Korea's Nodong missile technology. Since at least the early 1990s, North Korea has been only too happy to proliferate that technology to whoever wants it. Like Iran, Syria owes much of its own massive missile arsenal to North Korean proliferation.
Responding Monday to North Korea's nuclear test, US President Barack Obama said, "North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia."
While true, North Korea's intimate ties with Iran and Syria show that North Korea's nuclear program, with its warhead, missile and technological components, is not a distant threat, limited in scope to faraway East Asia. It is a multilateral program shared on various levels with Iran and Syria. Consequently, it endangers not just the likes of Japan and South Korea, but all nations whose territory and interests are within range of Iranian and Syrian missiles.
Beyond its impact on Iran's technological and hardware capabilities, North Korea's nuclear program has had a singular influence on Iran's political strategy for advancing its nuclear program diplomatically. North Korea has been a trailblazer in its utilization of a mix of diplomatic aggression and seeming accommodation to alternately intimidate and persuade its enemies to take no action against its nuclear program. Iran has followed Pyongyang's model assiduously. Moreover, Iran has used the international - and particularly the American - response to various North Korean provocations over the years to determine how to position itself at any given moment in order to advance its nuclear program.
For instance, when the US reacted to North Korea's 2006 nuclear and ICBM tests by reinstating the six-party talks in the hopes of appeasing Pyongyang, Iran learned that by exhibiting an interest in engaging the US on its uranium enrichment program it could gain valuable time. Just as North Korea was able to dissipate Washington's resolve to act against it while buying time to advance its program still further through the six-party talks, so Iran, by seemingly agreeing to a framework for discussing its uranium enrichment program, has been able to keep the US and Europe at bay for the past several years.
THE OBAMA administration's impotent response to Pyongyang's ICBM test last month and its similarly stuttering reaction to North Korea's nuclear test on Monday have shown Teheran that it no longer needs to even pretend to have an interest in negotiating aspects of its nuclear program with Washington or its European counterparts. Whereas appearing interested in reaching an accommodation with Washington made sense during the Bush presidency, when hawks and doves were competing for the president's ear, today, with the Obama administration populated solely by doves, Iran, like North Korea, believes it has nothing to gain by pretending to care about accommodating Washington.
This point was brought home clearly by both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's immediate verbal response to the North Korean nuclear test on Monday and by Iran's provocative launch of warships in the Gulf of Aden the same day. As Ahmadinejad said, as far the Iranian regime is concerned, "Iran's nuclear issue is over."
There is no reason to talk anymore. Just as Obama made clear that he intends to do nothing in response to North Korea's nuclear test, so Iran believes that the president will do nothing to impede its nuclear program.
Of course it is not simply the administration's policy toward North Korea that is signaling to Iran that it has no reason to be concerned that the US will challenge its nuclear aspirations. The US's general Middle East policy, which conditions US action against Iran's nuclear weapons program on the prior implementation of an impossible-to-achieve Israel-Palestinian peace agreement makes it obvious to Teheran that the US will take no action whatsoever to prevent it from following in North Korea's footsteps and becoming a nuclear power.
During his press briefing with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last Monday, Obama said the US would reassess its commitment to appeasing Iran at year's end. And early this week it was reported that Obama has instructed the Defense Department to prepare plans for attacking Iran. Moreover, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has made several recent statements warning of the danger a nuclear-armed Iran will pose to global security - and by extension, to US national security.
On the surface, all of this seems to indicate that the Obama administration may be willing to actually do something to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Unfortunately, though, due to the timeline Obama has set, it is clear that before he will be ready to lift a finger against Iran, the mullocracy will have already become a nuclear power.
Israel assesses that Iran will have a sufficient quantity of enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb by the end of the year. The US believes that it could take until mid-2010. At his press briefing last week Obama said that if the negotiations are deemed a failure, the next step for the US will be to expand international sanctions against Iran. It can be assumed that here, too, Obama will allow this policy to continue for at least six months before he will be willing to reconsider it. By that point, in all likelihood, Iran will already be in possession of a nuclear arsenal.
Beyond Obama's timeline, over the past week, two other developments made it apparent that regardless of what Iran does, the Obama administration will not revise its policy of placing its Middle East emphasis on weakening Israel rather than on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. First, last Friday, Yediot Aharonot reported that at a recent lecture in Washington, US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, who is responsible for training Palestinian military forces in Jordan, indicated that if Israel does not surrender Judea and Samaria within two years, the Palestinian forces he and his fellow American officers are now training at a cost of more than $300 million could begin killing Israelis.
Assuming the veracity of Yediot's report, even more unsettling than Dayton's certainty that within a short period of time these US-trained forces could commence murdering Israelis, is his seeming equanimity in the face of the known consequences of his actions. The prospect of US-trained Palestinian military forces slaughtering Jews does not cause Dayton to have a second thought about the wisdom of the US's commitment to building and training a Palestinian army.
Dayton's statement laid bare the disturbing fact even though the administration is fully aware of the costs of its approach to the Palestinian conflict with Israel, it is still unwilling to reconsider it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates just extended Dayton's tour of duty for an additional two years and gave him the added responsibility of serving as Obama's Middle East mediator George Mitchell's deputy.
FOUR DAYS after Dayton's remarks were published, senior American and Israeli officials met in London. The reported purpose of the high-level meeting was to discuss how Israel will abide by the administration's demand that it prohibit all construction inside Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.
What was most notable about the meeting was its timing. By holding the meeting the day after North Korea tested its bomb and after Iran's announcement that it rejects the US's offer to negotiate about its nuclear program, the administration demonstrated that regardless of what Iran does, Washington's commitment to putting the screws on Israel is not subject to change.
All of this of course is music to the mullahs' ears. Between America's impotence against their North Korean allies and its unshakable commitment to keeping Israel on the hot seat, the Iranians know that they have no reason to worry about Uncle Sam.
As for Israel, it is a good thing that the IDF has scheduled the largest civil defense drill in the country's history for next week. Between North Korea's nuclear test, Iran's brazen bellicosity and America's betrayal, it is clear that the government can do nothing to impact Washington's policies toward Iran. No destruction of Jewish communities will convince Obama to act against Iran.
Today Israel stands alone against the mullahs and their bomb. And this, like the US's decision to stand down against the Axis of Evil, is not subject to change.