Some Korean Lessons for Iran

It is time for the Great Satan to talk to what is left of the Axis of Evil. This is the great lesson of recent movement on the Korean nuclear question.

The Iraq war will go down in history as the least excusable big-power blunder since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. By comparison, the six-year long stupidity of the Bush position on North Korea pales into insignificance. But there is a lesson there which is crucial and topical: Iran.

If the west truly wants to stop Iranian progress towards nuclear weapons capability it has only two options: bomb its facilities and supporting infrastructure, or be prepared to strike a bargain in which Iran is allowed some further civilian nuclear development and the end of economic sanctions in return for freezing any weapons program and subjecting itself to inspection.

The first option is of course supported by Israel, Christian fundamentalists and Zionist expansionists like the neocon hawks Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, who still wield influence in Washington. Anything which adds to Middle East chaos and enables Israel to remain the region’s most potent military force and only nuclear power is just fine with them.

One cannot rule out an attack, and the presence of two US carrier battle groups in the Gulf in addition to all the other hardware that the US has in the vicinity adds to general fears that a deluded US President George W Bush will make one final throw of the military dice. But it is doubtful if even tried and tested followers like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard would support a military move against Iran. And though the public at home might accept an aerial attack with minimal casualties, it still seems unlikely.

But having never believed until it was too late that it could possibly be in the US interest to invade Iraq, I could be wrong again. As his reaction to the Iraq Study Group report shows, the field of vision from Bush’s Texas bunker is tiny. But still, one has to take the military moves as ratcheting up the pressure on Iran rather than a preparation for war.

But as North Korea has shown, gestures and chest-thumping get nowhere against determined opponents. It was seldom credible that the US would use force against North Korea even before 9/11 diverted US energies and stupidities towards the Middle East and the much inflated “global war on terror.” Despite the “axis of evil” rhetoric, even the Bush administration was never going to trash its relationship with China to the extent that an attack on Korea would imply.

Instead, what we had was six years of refusal to deal with Korea on grounds that the US was being blackmailed. What did it expect? Blackmail, threats, bargaining chips — these are the stuff of diplomacy. The US would not deal. It would not talk. The hopes of a Washington-Pyongyang rapprochement, which almost led to a visit by President Clinton in the final days of his administration, were dashed. So Kim Jong Il went merrily ahead with his nuclear program, exited the Non-Proliferation Treaty, conducted an uranium enrichment project as a backup to his plutonium and finally demonstrated he was not bluffing by testing a crude weapon.

The fact that the western media is given to making fun of Kim, treating him as both mad and bad, merely adds to the humiliation of the US now that the Bush administration has finally come to its senses due to a variety of factors and performed a 180 degree policy shift. The reasons for that include the common sense of its chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill, support from Condoleezza Rice and the exit of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former UN Ambassador John Bolton as a result of Iraq and the mid-term election.

Credit too should go to the South Koreans for holding out against the earlier Bush policy and in effect aligning its position more closely with that of China. Beijing itself has skillfully used its influence to edge both Washington and Pyongyang to dialogue, in the process winning brownie points for itself.

Common sense has been forced on Bush and the road, rocky though it will remain, is now open for a a nuclear freeze by the North in return for economic help and diplomatic face.

But, one still wonders, what lessons has Washington taken from this? Does it see that Iran can be similarly addressed? Or does ending the Korean standoff make it that much easier to have a free hand in dealing with Iran, if necessary by military means?

One of the mistakes over Korea was the erroneous assumption that the solution lay with the inevitable collapse of the regime, which would only be delayed by aid whether food or fuel oil. Likewise with Iran there is now a belief that rising internal dissent and an economy weakened by sanctions will bring about the fall of the regime.

For sure, dissent has more chance of expressing itself in partly democratic Tehran than in the world’s most totalitarian state. But the nuclear issue is a nationalistic one that plays into the hands of the Islamic republic just as the 1980 invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, egged on by the west, provided a nationalist lifeline for the then-wobbly Ayatollah-led regime.

But assuming that that regime will crumble any time soon, or that a successor would be any more inclined to abandon all nuclear ambitions, is clearly wishful thinking. And though for various reasons, including the Iraq mess and Israeli influence, there is greater likelihood of military action than in the Korean case, it is still more possibility than probability.

So what then will be the impact on the Iran case of Korea? The more sensible voices in Washington now hope that apparent US willingness now to do deals with “evil” will, combined with increased pressure from European allies, and perhaps Russia and China, persuade the clerics to rein in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Iran is certainly more susceptible to economic pressure than hermetically sealed North Korea and mainstream Iranian voices such as former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani are clearly in the camp of compromise.

However, such is the animosity of the US towards Iran that the US may simply not accept any level of nuclear development in Iran. The largest, oldest and most populous state in the Middle East, Iran is almost surrounded by nuclear powers (Russia, Pakistan and the US) and sees no reason why the only Middle East state permitted nuclear capability is the Jewish colonial implant, which not only has a large arsenal of bombs but the means to deliver them.

Iran may be prepared to put its nuclear efforts on hold in return for economic benefit – unlike North Korea, there are powerful interests in Iran which would benefit from opening of the economy, further privatization and the return of foreign investment. However, it remains to be seen whether the US would be prepared to see Iran in the World Trade Organization without a complete renunciation of its nuclear ambitions. Recognition of Israel would help, but that looks unlikely as long as there is no sign that it will relinquish its colonization of territories conquered in 1967.

Alternatively, Tehran may draw the conclusion from the Korean example that the US will only get serious about negotiations once it has already achieved nuclear capability. In which case it will call the US bluff and carry on its program in the belief that nothing much will happen. Even a military strike might do no more than delay its efforts by a couple of years, and might even be welcomed by the likes of Ahmedinejad as likely to enhance his nationalist status and hold on power.

Time is on the side of any country wanting nuclear status. The NPT has been nonsense for years, ignored by Israel, India and Pakistan and only invoked by the west when it suited its other interests. Kim Jong Il saw that very clearly, stayed the course, left the NPT in 2003 and now has his bomb. Sooner or later Iran will have one too. But talking can at least delay the inevitable.

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