How Washington Dropped the Ball on N Korean Nukes while Obsessing about Iran (McShane)

Michael McShane writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

In a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon highlighted the disproportionate attention President Obama has paid to Iran’s nuclear program since coming to office compared to the diplomatic engagement the United States has pursued vis-à-vis North Korea’s own steadily growing nuclear weapons program.

Solomon writes:

“This gap between North Korea and Iran, which is widely recognized in Washington, is exposing what many Western diplomats and security analysts believe has been the U.S.’s muted response to Pyongyang’s nuclear advances in recent years, as compared with Iran’s.”

While the piece offers cursory explanations – “direct confrontation with North Korean ally China” and “Israel’s concerns” – for the uneven U.S. responses to the respective nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, it simply provides general background information and a binary breakdown of the differing stages of each state’s nuclear progress, i.e., the overwhelming weaponization realities of North Korea’s program in contrast to the non-existent capabilities of a purported Iranian nuclear threat.

In 2003, Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As Solomon details in his report, the North Koreans have managed to push forward with their nuclear program, conducting three nuclear tests since 2006; yet the U.S., until recently, has handled North Korean provocations with much less hostility – diplomatically and coercively – compared to Iran.

China has certainly been a major factor in U.S. decision-making. Nevertheless, Beijing is just as interested in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula as the U.S. The United States also provides security guarantees to two of its closest allies, South Korea and Japan, which are dangerously close to finding themselves within range of a North Korean nuclear payload; yet despite the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the de-stabilizing regional environment for its allies, there hasn’t been the same sense of urgency for the U.S. when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

Why has U.S. policy ultimately diverged with respect to North Korea and Iran? Quite simply, North Korea’s neighborhood – though quickly evolving into a much more important focal point (Asia “pivot”) for Washington – has not been nearly as strategically important to U.S. interests as the Middle East, wherein maintaining Israel’s regional military superiority and safeguarding Persian Gulf hydrocarbons remain critical national security interests.

The United States is required by law not only “to provide Israel the military capabilities necessary to deter and defend itself by itself against any threats” but also “to help Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation.”

The U.S. asserts that a nuclear-armed Iran would represent:

“A development that would fundamentally threaten vital American interests, destabilize the region, encourage regional nuclear proliferation, further empower and embolden Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provide it the tools to threaten its neighbors, including Israel.”

Israeli officials have expressed concerns to their U.S. counterparts that a nuclear-armed Iran presents a threat to Israel’s military position within the region. While senior government officials and policymakers won’t openly discuss the fear of losing Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, based on public statements, it’s apparent Israel’s primary concern is its diminished ability to act unilaterally – not an existential threat – if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated:

“From our point of view […] a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv. A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”

The strategic importance of the Middle East and its stability arguably lies in the foundation and engine of U.S. strength and eventual global hegemony – oil. U.S. power and global dominance, past and present, increased through its industrial economic growth, which was driven by access to cheap oil. Once domestic oil supplies reached its peak in the 1970’s, the oil-rich Persian Gulf became an immensely important strategic interest for the U.S, an interest that would need to be protected to maintain U.S. power.

During the 1970’s, as a friendly ally and relatively powerful client of the U.S., the Shah of Iran helped secure the U.S.’s primary interest (oil), thus maintaining U.S. influence in the Middle East. In fact, at this time, Israel and Iran served to militarily check any challenges emanating from within the region. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the new Iranian regime proved to be virulently anti-American and had no intention of catering to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.

Israel has been a staunch ally of the U.S. for decades, helping to preserve U.S. interests within the Middle East. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro told an audience in 2011,“Israel is a vital ally and serves as a cornerstone of our regional security commitments.” He quoted former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, saying, “For Israel, there is no greater strategic threat than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Israel’s nuclear weapons capability affords it an unmatched edge in military power within the region; and this historical and current regional balance of power serves and protects the interests of Israel’s closest ally and patron, the United States.

U.S. (and Israeli) fear of the potential shift in the balance of power due to a nuclear Iran threatens regional stability and thus the U.S.’s most important interest in the Persian Gulf – the secure flow of oil. Hence, for the past decade, Iran’s nuclear program –not North Korea’s – has garnered the lion’s share of U.S. attention.


Michael McShane is an intern with the EastWest Institute’s China Program and a recent graduate of The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, where he earned his Masters in International Affairs.

Posted in Iran | 8 Responses | Print |

8 Responses

  1. We have seen US practically left N. Korea to its own device and mobolized everyone against imaginary Iran “nuclear weapon”. Obama was bush on steroid. Obama became zionist’s servant telling Israel’s narrative on Iran, meaning “regime change”, to stay at the WH. According to Oded Yinon, Israel has to change the Middle East’s map though destabilization, partition based on ethnic and religous divide to establish “greater Israel”. So Israel should create no-Arab entities such as “greater Kurdistan”, “Baluchestan”, “greater Azabaijan”, Berber, partitioning Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and the rest to “survive”. We know they will take this wish into their graves.
    link to

    Tom Friedman is spewing regime change policy as follow:

    “I confess that when I first saw the May 17 [2010] picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

    “No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.”

    Though Friedman did not call Lula da Silva and Erdogan crazy, he did insult them and impugned their motives. He accused them of seeking this important step toward a peaceful resolution of an international dispute “just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table.”

    In the column, Friedman also made clear that he wasn’t really interested in Iranian nuclear safeguards; instead, he wanted the United States to do whatever it could to help Iran’s internal opposition overthrow President Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Islamic Republic.

    “In my view, the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran is the most important, self-generated, democracy movement to appear in the Middle East in decades,” Friedman wrote. “It has been suppressed, but it is not going away, and, ultimately, its success — not any nuclear deal with the Iranian clerics — is the only sustainable source of security and stability. We have spent far too little time and energy nurturing that democratic trend and far too much chasing a nuclear deal.”

    Just three years later, however, it’s clear how wrongheaded Friedman was. The Green Movement, which was never the mass popular movement that the U.S. media claimed, has largely disappeared

  2. The article by Solomon is misleading, and even mcShane joins in the chorus “Israel has been a staunch ally of the U.S. for decades”. What benefits have the huge gifts of the USA to Israel really given back? As Juan’s picture of Zionism in the first post today shows, a big bloc of people who hate the USA.
    DPRK is “tolerated” ie with 60 years of vicious sanctions, because it DOES have nukes. Iraq would not have been invaded if there really were WMD. Libya was invaded after removing them.
    As North Korea has stated, of the 2000 nuclear tests undertaken in recent years, only the three by DPRK are criticised (and the zero by Iran).

  3. The reality is Israel’s nukes are pretty much worthless.

    Who exactly can Israel nuke without making their own situation much worse?

    – If Israel nukes Lebanon, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes Syria, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes Jordan, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes Gaza, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes the West Bank, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes Egypt, it will contaminate its own people and food supplies and cause extreme anger around the world.

    – If Israel nukes Iraq or Iran there will be no direct contamination of Israel, BUT down-wind of both countries are three NUCLEAR POWERS and lots of US citizens (and eventually the winds blow on the US west coast). China, Pakistan and India are NOT going to be very happy about having their people and food supplies contaminated by Israel, and China is NOT afraid of the US, so China could decide to attack Israel in retaliation – Israel would lose badly in any war with China and the US would have to choose between losing a war to China or sitting down and shutting up – I suspect that Americans will not choose to die for Israel.

    – If Israel nukes Saudi Arabia, over 1.5 BILLION Muslims would be looking for every Jews on earth, not just Israelis, to get their revenge. The US would be unable to protect more than a few thousand Jews, if that.

    So who else could Israel attack with nukes?

    – Russia? Russia would simply destroy Israel.

    – Europe? Europe would simply destroy Israel.

    – The list gets pretty ridiculous after this point.

    The bottom line is, unless Israelis want to commit suicide, their nukes are worthless. The nukes will not even prevent conventional weapon attacks.

    I suspect I am not the only one to figure out Israel can never use its nukes unless it wants to die in a blaze of glory, therefore the likelihood of a massive conventional attack on Israel increases daily as Israel’s ACTIONS alienation more and more humans and the US power decreases.

    Given that over the last 10,000 years exactly ZERO military have remained undefeated, maybe it is time for Israel to realize that it can not keep the land by force and needs to negotiate a fair agreement to have any hope of a future.

    Yes, Israel will have to give up lots of land, water, wealth (money for compensation) and apologies for all their past ACTIONS, but at least it will have a future. The path Israel is on right now has no future.

    • Spyguy, great analysis. (The Great Gamers will of course decree it “jejune” and “unsophisticated” and all that, and lay out “thinkable” scenarios where “deploying nukes” would be so very appropriate and effective, too!)

      So the Israeli nukes might be kind of like the US nukes, some 4,650 or some other large number, whatever happens to be saddled up and ready to go, under “OPLAN 8010, Strategic Deterrence and Global Strike”, link to, a fun read: Use them, and “we” are the “rogue state of all time,” and gee, would one think that maybe all of a sudden everyone else in the world would have that thing that Reagan and Gorby wistfully chatted about, how nice it would be to be attacked by Martians, link to, so the Superpowers would have what “WE” would be, a COMMON ENEMY. USans, 310M; OTHERS, 7,000M. Interesting odds.

      Of course if “we” “deploy” enough of them, then maybe the Greenhouse Overheated Summer will be cancelled by that Nuclear Winter thing! link to

  4. The uneven approach laid upon the uneven threats. Iran threatened to wipe up Israel from the face of the earth, threatened Europe and the US. What needed more?
    In the last 2 weeks N. Korea tries to mimic Iran. Bad joke!

    • You understand that Iran did not in fact threaten to wipe Israel off the map, and that its leaders have repeatedly stated a no first strike policy, i.e. they haven’t threatened anyone at all. Your post is a good support for the article.

  5. Israel’s nuke threat against Iran/KSA/Iraq etc. amount to blackmail of the world’s oil-dependent countries.

  6. The US obsessing over North Korea and Cuba for more than a half century didn’t exactly move anything forward. And goading by the US during the Days of W pushed the North Koreans to join our nuclear family.

    I hope our attention to Iran does no more than keep Israel from starting a war that no one should want.

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