By Michael McShane
In an article published in last week’s 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.
“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 destabilizing 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 (the Asia “pivot”) for Washington—has not been nearly as strategically important to U.S. interests as the Middle East, whereinmaintaining 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’sregional nuclear monopoly, based on public statements, it’s apparent that 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 1970s, the oil-rich Persian Gulf became an immensely important strategic interest for the U.S, an interest in need of protection to maintain U.S. power.
During the 1970s, 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), thereby 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. 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 for the EastWest Institute’s Strategic Trust-building Initiative.