Iran's North Korean model

Obama needs to lead. So far, however, the signs are not promising.

ahmadinejad in the sky with diamonds 248 (photo credit: )
ahmadinejad in the sky with diamonds 248
(photo credit: )
'As Maine goes, so goes the nation," was a popular US political axiom in the last century, attesting to the northeastern state's uncanny ability through much of the 19th and early 20th century to be a bellwether of US presidential elections. In numerous elections during that period, whichever party won the Maine gubernatorial elections in September would go on to win the US presidential election in November. That was then. Now we are in a new century, with new issues, and new bellwethers. "As North Korea goes," a contemporary, jazzed up version of the saying could go, "so goes Iran." Or that, at least, is the concern at the top of Israel's security pyramid - that Iran is watching, and learning much, from North Korea. What Iran is carefully studying is how North Korea has artfully defied the world for the last 16 years and managed to accrue nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The North Korean nuclear saga is the sorry, protracted tale of nearly two decades of North Korean obfuscation; of entering agreements and reneging them; of starting talks and then walking out of them; of engagement and then disengagement that culminated so far in the regime's second underground nuclear weapons test in May, followed by firing six ballistic missiles in July. In other words, after years of meetings and understandings and carrots and sticks and cajoling and compromises, North Korea served the world a double-whammy message this year: Yes, we have nuclear weapons capabilities, and yes, we have the means to deliver them. THE NORTH Korean nuclear saga is also the sorry, protracted tale of the international community not paying sufficient attention, nor mustering enough will, to stop the determined dictators in Pyongyang. As one senior Israeli official recently put it, the US let North Korea slip through its fingers, and the real concern here is that this pattern is repeating itself with Iran. Iran has obviously watched the North Korean dossier over the years with great interest, noticing that Pyongyang bucked international calls to stop uranium enrichment and paid no real international price for it. What works for the North Koreans, the Iranian leadership surely told themselves, will work for us as well; if the North Koreans can get away with enriching uranium, then certainly we can too. With two critical international meetings on the Iranian issue coming up next week, it is vital that the international community - which has just agreed to enter into further talks with Iran, this time with the participation of the US - look carefully at the mistakes that were made with North Korea, and not repeat them. On September 24 the leaders of the G20, representing the world's major economies, will meet in Pittsburgh and are expected to discuss the possibility of "crippling" sanctions on Iran if the newest engagement doesn't yield fruit. That same day US President Barack Obama will also be chairing a special session of the UN Security Council on non-proliferation. Obama needs to seize the moment here and lead. He needs to take advantage of both forums, and his still lofty standing in the world, and broach no more patience for Iran's stalling tactics. He needs to have debilitating sanctions in place for the moment it becomes clear the Iranians - like the North Koreans before them - were using the next round of talks of not to solve the nuclear crisis, but rather to create a far bigger one. So far, however, the signs are not promising. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said earlier this month that this extraordinary session of the Security Council "will be focused on nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear disarmament broadly, and not on any specific countries." One hopes, however, that this is not what indeed transpires, because as most right-thinking people must acknowledge, it is one thing for Finland to enrich uranium, and quite another for Iran to do the same. Pretending otherwise is just so much burying one's head in the sand, something the world did with regards to North Korea for much of the last 16 years, and which it would continue to do now with Iran at its own enormous peril.