South Korea lives under a US security umbrella. Both on a conventional and nuclear level, South Koreans are dependent on the US to deter North Korea from attacking them and overrunning their country.
Last Friday, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman scolded South Koreans for being too nationalist. In her words, “Nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.”
The South Koreans interpreted her remarks as criticism of their President Park Geun-hye for her refusal to reinstate reunification talks with North Korea due to Pyongyang’s refusal to discuss the dismantlement of its nuclear program.
Sherman negotiated the US’s nuclear pact with North Korea in the 1990s. The North Koreans used the deal as a smokescreen behind which they developed nuclear weapons while receiving financial assistance from the US which paid off the regime for signing the deal.
Once Pyongyang was ready to come out as a nuclear power, it threw out the nuclear inspectors, opened the sealed nuclear sites, vacated its signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and began testing nuclear bombs.
Sherman is now the US’s chief negotiator in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran.
This week President Park traveled to Saudi Arabia, where she signed a deal to build two nuclear reactors for the oil giant.
The truth is that the North Koreans didn’t need nuclear weapons to deter South Korea from attacking it. Pyongyang possesses one of the largest, most powerful artillery arsenals in the world and it has enough artillery pieces pointed at Seoul to bomb the South Korean capital into the Stone Age.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is not directed primarily against Seoul. It is directed against Washington. And, as the US’s timidity in its defense of South Korea, and its constant attempts to placate Pyongyang indicate, Washington has been deterred.
The day after Saudi King Salman signed his nuclear deal with Park, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Riyadh to meet with him and with the foreign ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
According to news reports, Kerry offered the Arab leaders to place them under the US nuclear umbrella to protect them from Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
There can be no doubt that in his conversations with the South Korean leader, King Salman discussed what life is like under an American security guarantee. And it is hard to see that he considers it a good bargain.
It is not merely that the US is deterred by North Korea, and therefore is willing to humiliate and endanger South Korea to avoid having to contend with Pyongyang. It is that US President Barack Obama has destroyed the credibility of US security guarantees by repeatedly failing to stand by them.
During the Cold War, West Germany and the rest of Western Europe were able to function under the US’s nuclear umbrella because the Soviet Union was deterred from invading Germany by the US’s nuclear threat. Moscow believed the US was serious when it promised to bomb the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads if it sent tanks into West Berlin.
Obama wouldn’t even undertake limited air strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad after he crossed Obama’s declared redline and attacked his opponents with chemical weapons.
Obama failed to live up to his own redline because he didn’t want to upset Assad’s protectors in Tehran. To build up the credibility of his intentions to appease Tehran, Obama betrayed the Syrian people and his own pledge to defend them against chemical strikes. So even without nuclear weapons, Tehran is deterring Obama.
Beyond that, just as Pyongyang doesn’t require nuclear weapons to destroy South Korea, Iran doesn’t need to attack Persian Gulf states with nuclear weapons in order to dominate them and cause their collapse.
Iran can subjugate and destroy these regimes simply by using its proxies against them and threatening their economies with its control over both the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden. Iran can bring the Saudis to their knees without getting anywhere near a nuclear tripwire.
And like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Arab leaders are convinced that as she did in 1999 with Pyongyang, Sherman and her boss, Kerry, are now paving the way for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
If the Arabs scoff at the US offer of a nuclear umbrella, Israelis don’t even have the luxury of snorting at the offer because there is no reason to believe that even a credible nuclear umbrella would deter Iran from attacking Israel with nuclear weapons.
In Israel’s case there are any number of scenarios under which Iran will see an advantage to attacking Israel with nuclear weapons, either directly or through one of its proxies that now encircle Israel along three borders.
And so we are left with the question of how to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As Netanyahu explained in his address before the joint houses of Congress on Tuesday, the deal that Obama is now offering Iran “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
By leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, and pledging to end the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program within a decade, Obama is enabling Iran to acquire nuclear arms both by cheating its way there as the North Koreans did, or by waiting out the deal and emerging immediately after as a nuclear power.
Either way, the deal as presently constituted empowers the regime. It enriches the ayatollahs and legitimizes their regime and their hegemonic actions and aspirations.
The problem with seeking to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is that according to arms control expert Graham Allison from Harvard University, and others, Iran passed the point of no return in terms of nuclear know-how in 2008. It has mastered the technology and the science and therefore has wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons, and rebuild nuclear infrastructures that may be destroyed or damaged in aerial and other attacks.
Given this dismal state of affairs there are three ways to approach the problem.
The first path is similar to Israel’s counterterror strategy of “mowing the lawn.” In counterterror parlance “mowing the lawn” involves destroying as much of the terrorist infrastructure that the terrorist foe possesses in as short a period as possible, and then repeating the process after the terror group reconstitutes its capabilities.
In the case of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a “mowing the lawn” approach would involve using force to destroy as many Iranian nuclear installations as possible in as short a campaign as possible in order to set Iran’s production schedule back for as long as possible, and then repeating the process, when Iran reconstitutes its capabilities.
The second path to block Iran’s nuclear advance is to use coercive diplomacy including harsh economic sanctions and other punitive means to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear installations and couple that coercive diplomacy with an intrusive inspections regime to ensure long term compliance.
The third means of curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions involves overthrowing the regime by providing active support – including organizational support and arms to regime opponents.
When Netanyahu spoke to the joint houses of Congress on Tuesday, he directly advanced the first two paths toward preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and indirectly advanced the third.
Netanyahu provided a sober-minded, carefully constructed argument for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He then demonstrated why Obama’s nuclear negotiating strategy enables Iran to become a nuclear power. In so doing, Netanyahu built sufficient bipartisan Congressional support for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons to protect Israel from the Obama administration.
Whether Netanyahu will order such a strike, or when such a strike could be most effective, is impossible to judge. But he did secure Congressional support for it.
Netanyahu also created an opening for lawmakers who are frightened by the deal Obama is now negotiating to prevent him from completing it. Whether or when they will use the opportunity is still unclear. Obama has tremendous power and leverage over Democratic lawmakers and he has no compunction about using it to get his way.
On the other hand, buoyed by Netanyahu, Republicans also have power. If they use it judiciously, they will be able to secure 67 votes in favor of legislation that would require Obama to receive Senate approval for his nuclear deal, and would place harsh economic sanctions on Iran if it doesn’t meet the behavioral benchmarks of ending its sponsorship of terrorism, ending its meddling in the internal affairs of other states, and ending its threats to annihilate Israel that Netanyahu laid out.
Beyond that, by making clear that it is pure folly to assume that Iran will magically transform itself into a responsible actor on the international stage after securing the deal, Netanyahu provided the rationale for a strategy of regime change. Whether a future administration will adopt this option or not is unclear, but it is now evident that given the fact that Iran has the technological and scientific capacity to develop nuclear weapons, the only way in the long term to prevent that from happening is to overthrow the regime.
Obama and his advisers argue that there are only two options – their agreement, that enables Iran to build a nuclear arsenal in the coming years, or war. What Netanyahu made clear is that this is a false choice. The US is stronger than Iran. It has more leverage than Iran. All it needs to get a better agreement is a massively diminished desire to conclude one.