Last fall, then-vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden warned “We’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test” Barrack “Obama’s mettle.” Tehran’s satellite launch and Pyongyang’s war-like nullification of inter-Korean accords on security and its transparent preparations for the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) could be Biden’s “generated crisis.”
Iran and North Korea probably didn’t coordinate these crises, but their actions will force the new president to show his mettle earlier than he may wish. It appears Obama has only two paths – military action or negotiation with diplomacy, both are dangerous, but we can’t wait too long.
North Korea’s crisis is contrived and predictable. Its leader, Kim Jong-Il, is sick, possibly dying, and that crisis was produced to show the regime is still strong in spite of his absence and it intends to survive by playing an age-old game of blackmail.
It survives by creating conditions that favor the regime before it inevitably agrees to renew negotiations intended to arrest its on-again, off-again atomic program. Pyongyang has successfully used this strategy since the Korean War in 1952 — renounce agreements, threaten and cash-in on renewed negotiations.
The latest crisis started in August when North Korea barred International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and removed seals and surveillance equipment from the regime’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon. These actions suggest Pyongyang is moving toward resumption of plutonium reprocessing and away from its obligations to shutter its atomic program.
In January, the regime followed the old script by renouncing all military and political agreements with South Korea after accusing Seoul of pursing policies that could push the neighbors toward war. Then last week Pyongyang increased pressure by moving an ICBM to its launch pad.
U.S. officials announced that satellite imagery detected a North Korean train carrying a cylinder-like object believed to be a Taepodong-2 ICBM, which has a range of more than 4,000 miles, capable of crossing the Pacific and striking targets in Hawaii or Alaska. The suspected missile was moved to a launch site where preparations will likely be completed in a month.
Each time North Korea has threatened to launch a missile or test a nuclear device it followed through. That’s why Pyongyang’s demonstration is certain and waiting will contribute to regional nervousness which is part of the North’s pressure agenda.
Few doubt Pyongyang’s contrived crisis is intended to force the Obama administration to pay attention to North Korea’s demands and to exact more concessions at disarmament negotiations later this year. But for Obama more is at stake.
This crisis reminds Americans that Obama promised not to field a ballistic missile defense (BMD) until it is proven. But, as his critics argue, no defensive system is fail-safe and, because America’s BMD systems are growing in effectiveness, the president must support their continued deployment.
Going forward with BMD should be part of Obama’s comprehensive North Korea policy which also must include how to engage the regime. During the presidential campaign then-Senator Obama advocated developing an “international coalition” to handle nuclear Pyongyang and promised that he supports “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy.” This crisis gives him that chance.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has a long and unsuccessful diplomatic history with North Korea. Based on that history it’s virtually assured the communists will beat Obama at the negotiating table and get their ransom – oil, food and other goodies. Obama will then declare his “aggressive diplomacy” worked; that is, until the goodies run out and Pyongyang once again contrives another crisis.
Tehran’s “crisis” isn’t contrived as Pyongyang’s “crisis,” because Iran is run by radical theologians – not self serving totalitarians. The Islamic mullahs want hegemony over the Middle East and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles are their insurance policy against outside interference.
Atomic ICBMs are also a true offensive weapon and given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to destroy Israel and attack US deployed forces, there is little reason to assume Ahmadinejad is only threatening. But in reality, and this is Obama’s challenge, Ahmadinejad doesn’t call the shots in Iran and the clerics who do have the power aren’t suicidal. So what will Obama do?
Tehran’s Feb. 3rd satellite launch corresponded with the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah. That launch was intended to threaten its neighbors who are fearful of the hegemonic Persians and to remind the West that the regime is serious about harnessing rockets that can reach global targets.
Iran’s Safir Omid, “Envoy of Hope,” a research and telecommunications satellite launch vehicle like North Korea’s Taepodong rocket, is based on the Russian Scud design. But Tehran’s successful placement of a satellite in space demonstrates Iran has advanced the Soviet-era technology into a credible, although rudimentary, intercontinental ballistic missile capable of placing small satellites in orbit and possibly warheads on global targets.
However, the distinction between putting a small satellite in orbit and launching a weaponized ICBM is payload. A weaponized missile must be large enough to launch a heavy warhead into space and the weapon’s capsule must be rugged enough to survive the harsh re-entry. Tehran has more work to do.
David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, believes Iran is now “80 percent of the way” to a deliverable nuclear weapon, though “the last 20 percent is the really hard part.” “I don’t think there’s any doubt that — left to the current policies — the Iranians will achieve a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Gary Samore, Obama’s point person on weapons of mass destruction in the National Security Council, believes Iran is only one or two years away from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Then it’s only a question of when Iran might have the ability to deliver that weapon.
In Oct. 2007, then-President Bush said “Our intelligence community assesses that … Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and … [U.S. deployed forces] “before 2015.” The recent launch suggests that timeline is much shorter. But Iran doesn’t have to wait for its ICBM, because it may already have the means to deliver a nuclear weapon against U.S. targets either by using short-range ballistic missiles from a ship or by aircraft.
Obama’s aids have recommended a two-part approach.
Samore counsels Obama to do an end run around President Ahmadinejad and approach the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s real power broker. The intent is to “… see if they could begin a dialogue” aimed at persuading Iran “to stop working on their nuclear program” explained Samore.
Dennis Ross favors leveraging Tehran with sanctions. However, Ross, who is expected to be named to a senior post handling Iran warned “…the Europeans make war more likely if they do not strengthen sanctions against Iran, and effectively end all commercial relations.” Many European countries continue to trade with Iran in spite of their being party to international sanctions.
Diplomacy and sanctions are expected to be the center pieces of Obama’s Iran strategy, but for America’s protection the administration must not negotiate away the BMD installations slated to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, Obama’s campaign promise to seek radical reductions in our atomic arsenal make the European BMD vulnerable to compromise with the Russians.
The crises with Iran and North Korea were generated for a variety of reasons which include testing Obama’s mettle. But time is short cautions William Perry, a former defense secretary and Obama adviser. “I believe that today we are clearly at the tipping point of nuclear proliferation and if the world does tip, it will be irreversible and dangerous beyond the imagination of most people.”
President Obama must protect America by accelerating our BMD and he must ensure Iran and North Korea never have the capability to use nuclear tipped ICBMs. The best outcome of the current crises would be replacing both regimes with governments that abandon missile and nuclear programs.
There seems to be only two paths to that goal: military action or negotiation with diplomacy. Either option entails danger, but the greater danger lies in waiting.