Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Iran not off gunsight

Iran off US hook for now,
but not the Israeli gunsight

by pv vivekanand

NORTH Korea's nuclear test has caught the US in a bind vis a-vis Iran. Washington has not ruled out military action against North Korea as a punitive measure for its defiance of international calls against going nuclear, but it is doubtful that the US would take that extreme step because of the ambiguity over whether the North Koreans do have nuclear weapons. If they do, then it is a certainty that they would use them against US allies in the neighbourhood if the US launches military action against them, and that in itself is its strongest deterrent.
With such constraints being imposed on its options, the Bush administration finds itself restrained from going ahead with plans to launch military action against Iran in the name of Tehran's refusal to suspend nuclear enrichment. The reason is simple: If the US insists on its hard line against any country outside the exclusive nuclear club that seeks to develop nuclear weapons, then the first candidate is North Korea since it has already conducted a test and has made no secret of its intention to acquire nuclear weapons. It is taken for granted that North Korea does have the ability to produce nuclear weapons and it might already have between four and 13 atomic weapons if some experts' assessments are correct. Others say North Korea is at least one year away from a nuclear bomb.
The "case"  against North Korea is proved, and it is far stronger than the Iranian case because Pyongyang has opted out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Iran has retained its status a signatory to the NPT. The world knows that the case against Iran is based on assumptions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not been able to come up with concrete charges against Iran.
Tehran has played its cards right, and it was an ace that it dealt on Monday by calling for a nuclear-weapons free world following the North Korean nuclear test.
Therefore, the US has to launch military action against North Korea — which is indeed a high-risk proposition to the US friends like Japan and South Korea — before it goes ahead with plans to eliminate or at least set back Iran's "suspicious" nuclear activities through military strikes.
Ironically, one way out of the deadlock is to establish that North Korea did not really conduct a nuclear test and has not reached a level in its nuclear programme to pose a genuine threat.
However, regional and international monitoring stations have affirmed that North Korea did conduct a nuclear test some 2,000 metres underground. As such, the US option of discrediting the North Korean claim has been set back.
South Korean monitors were first to report seismic activity in the area measuring 3.58 on the Richter scale, while the US Geological Survey recorded a 4.2-magnitude earthquake.
Russia has reported that the testing produced an explosion between five and 15 kilotons and that it was indeed nuclear in nature.
The angry Chinese reaction to the North Korean action is telling since Beijing is best placed to establish the authenticity of Pyongyang's claim.
These affirmations have not stopped US strategists trying an attempt by raising doubts whether the seismic event recorded in North Hamgyung province about 350 kilometres north-east of Pyongyang was indeed caused by a nuclear device.
If it is proved to be a dud, then it gets the US off the hook of having to act against North Korea before turning to Iran. Again, the US faces a firm Chinese stand against the military option.
In the meantime, Washington has to put up with humiliation that is emanating from bold North Korean statements and also faces pressure to end its painful crackdown on North Korean finances and finally agree to one-on-one negotiations, a demand that the US has consistently rejected if only because it would mean facing North Korean demands for a non-aggression pledge.
North Korea is cranking up the ratchet by suggesting that it only return to six-country talks to end its nuclear development if Washington made concessions.
"We are still willing to abandon nuclear programmes and return to six-party talks ... if the United States takes corresponding measures," a North Korean spokesman said on Tuesday.
However, the spokesman also talked tough. He said Pyongyang was prepared to put nuclear warheads on missiles and conduct additional nuclear tests "depending on how the situation develops."
Instead of making concessions, the US and Japan are pushing the UN Security Council to clamp harsh sanctions on North Korea. A US-drafted resolution calls for international inspections of North Korea’s incoming and outgoing cargoes, a freeze on transfers of materials and technology for military purposes and a ban on luxury goods. Japan wants a ban on North Korean ships and planes from all ports if they carried nuclear or ballistic missile-related materials. South Korea may also review its “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.
Such a tough approach has Israel worried because it would only intensify the confrontation in Asia while the Israeli priority is Iran and wants the US to "take out" Iranian nuclear installations as prelude to possible wider action for "regime change" in Tehran to suit Israeli interests. Israeli experts have stepped into the fray by suggesting that it has not been confirmed that a nuclear test took place and that North Korea probably has enough fissile material to make six to eight nuclear bombs but lacks the technology to make one small enough to mount on a missile.
They assert that Tehran is using "the current climate of international passivity" to push ahead with its nuclear activities. They have accused China of supplying Iran with nuclear materials, and technology and advanced centrifuges, as well as technology for sophisticated weapons and missile systems.
The Israelis would rather have the US engage North Korea in dialogue than confronting it because confrontation means eventual US military action while the Iranian threat — as Israel perceives it — continues to grow.
Parallel to the thinking is the possibility of Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. In fact, the possibility has grown in the wake of the unfolding events in the Korean Peninsula.
A revealing Israeli report says: "There is still a short time left to take action before Israelis wake up one morning — as did North Koreans and Japanese on Monday, Oct. 9 —  to find they ware living under a dark nuclear shadow; but, only for Israel a nuclear Iran will be less a shadow than a mortal threat to its very existence."
Does one have to read between the lines?