We have a clear choice coming up with Iran, just as we did — and blew it — with North Korea during the Clinton administration. More specifically, the worst possible outcome with Iran is to simply allow the nuclear weapon reality to ‘happen,’ as we did with North Korea.
Here’s the current state of the bidding: Both Iran and North Korea have longstanding and covert nuclear weapons programs; North Korea has reportedly produced nuclear weapons but probably does not yet have a “nuclear weapons capability.” Iran has probably not yet produced nuclear weapons but is clearly determined to do so.
And so far, like North Korea, all dealings the Iranians have had on their nuclear program — with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and anyone else — have been based on lies, threats, deception and contrivance. This pattern will continue — just as it does with North Korea — no matter what develops in context of so-called “negotiations” with either of them.
More important, the fundamental calculus North Korea’s tactics taught Iran is that there is a good chance no one will stop them if they simply continue on with their nuclear weapons program.
Despite this, the North Koreans remain unsure whether they will be allowed to achieve a “nuclear weapons capability” — however this is defined and who defines it. This step involves a whole different set of policy considerations and will involve serious regional players, especially the Japanese and the China.
With their ballistic missile tests this week, the North Koreans have sent the message they will go about developing their “nuclear weapons capability” the same way they did their nuclear weapons program. However, the tests have caused the Japanese to call for action in the U.N., and may furnish new incentives for the Japanese to contemplate developing their own nuclear capability. This would drastically change the strategic status quo in Asia and cause China to intervene with the North Koreans. In this context, I wrote here three years ago we should be discussing this reality with the Japanese — I hope we are.
Accordingly, and regarding North Korea, the situation is actually more to our strategic advantage now than for some time — despite a new round of verbal threats from North Korea. In fact, here are the current realities of the North Korean “nuclear problem”:
Whether they realize it or not, the North Koreans have tacitly accepted the basic assumptions of deterrence, in that it is relatively easy for us (and the Japanese, if they decide to do it) to ring them with a devastatingly accurate — and regime-ending — nuclear capability, whether based on some collective understanding or not.
The North Korean nuclear threat has served as the primary incentive for the development of an increasingly capable U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense capability — something we should have against China no matter the perceived threat from North Korea, but may not have built without the North Korean threat.
Now, what to do about Iran? It is — by far — more dangerous than the North Korean threat will likely ever be.
Because they have clearly decided to develop nuclear weapons and may be able to quickly field a “nuclear weapons capability,” it’s time for us (again) to have a serious policy discussion with ourselves. And, in a nutshell, it?s time for us to put up or shut up.
We will know very soon whether the international backbone exists to take coercive action against the Iranians. Assuming there isn’t (we?re dealing with the Euros and Russia after all) we must then face the decision whether we will — on our own — prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or a “nuclear weapons capability.”
However, if we don’t decide to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons capability, it will most certainly “just happen,” as it did in North Korea during the 1990s.
Because of this reality, should we also be thinking about the dynamics of deterring them, if they are so foolish to think of actually using — or threatening to use — nuclear weapons in any context whatsoever?
Maybe, but a very cautionary word on deterrence — it’s comprised to two critical elements: Capability and will. And, deterrence fails as a policy if either element is lacking — either in fact or by the miscalculation or irrationality of the enemy.
While the North Koreans may simulate irrationality because they believe it will enhance their negotiating position, a series of radical Iranian regimes since 1978 have demonstrated beyond all doubt they are willing to be led by lunatics.
As such, we will not be able to deter Iran — and in the final analysis this is the most dangerous part of the situation. It demonstrates just how important it is that Iran not be allowed to build nuclear weapons or develop a nuclear weapons capability in the first place.
Let’s get it right this time.
Daniel Gallington, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, was a member of the U.S. delegation to the nuclear and space talks with the former Soviet Union.