Meanwhile, in Tehran and Pyongyang ...

While the Bush administration finishes up its preparations to attack Iraq, it is nearly impotent in the face of North Korea's and Iran's provocations. Those two countries have openly violated the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both have signed.

One of the goals of the war declared by the American administration on Iraq is eliminating its plans for developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons. But it is possible that one result of the war actually will be the completion of nuclear development plans in two of Iraq's colleagues in the "axis of evil." This week's missile test by North Korea, which comes in the wake of its renewed nuclear development project and the revelations of surprising progress in Iranian projects creating fissionable material, are evidence those two countries plan to exploit the ongoing crisis with Iraq to accelerate their own nuclear development plans.

While the Bush administration finishes up its preparations to attack Iraq, it is nearly impotent in the face of North Korea's and Iran's provocations. Those two countries have openly violated the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both have signed. And as in the Iraqi crisis, in the conflict with those two countries, not only is the U.S. alone in its efforts to deal with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but the international community, particularly the UN agency responsible for preventing proliferation of nuclear weaponry, frustrates every opportunity to apply pressure on Tehran and Pyongyang.

"We suddenly discovered," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a TV interview this past weekend, that "Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program a lot more than anyone knew." Iran has a very intensive nuclear program, far beyond what the International Atomic Energy Agency attributed to it, he said. The comments came in the wake of information about the visit by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to Iranian nuclear plants two weeks ago. It turns out ElBaradei discovered at the Natnaz site a completed experimental facility, equipped with 160 gas centrifuges used for enriching uranium. Another 1,000 centrifuges under construction were found in the next hall, representing a fifth of the 5,000 that will be built there. With that number of centrifuges, enough enriched uranium can be processed to build two nuclear bombs a year. The Iranians admitted to the IAEA chairman that they are building a plant where uranium can be turned into UF6 - Uranium hexaflouride, which is used for operating the centrifuges. The Iranians have also bought that kind of gas in China, as Ze'ev Schiff reported here two weeks ago.

Despite these revelations, ElBaradei gave Iran his stamp of approval and made clear he and his organization have no intention of asking difficult questions about Iran's nuclear ambitions, neither with regard to the way Tehran hid the nuclear facilities at Natnaz and Arak, as opposed to what they promised in the NPT, nor with regard to their accelerated program to enrich uranium, for which they give the baseless justification of their need to develop civilian energy sources.

Powell's call on the IAEA to tighten the inspections on Iran's nuclear program fell, as expected, on deaf ears. Once again, as in the Iraqi case, the IAEA inspectors are closing their eyes and ignoring the clear writing on the walls of the Iranian nuclear plants. In that sense, ElBaradei is behaving like his predecessor at the IAEA, Hans Blix, who a few months before the first Gulf war gave Iraq a clean bill of health, indeed a mark of excellence for abiding by the terms of the NPT. After the war, weapons inspectors found that Iraq was within six months of finishing development of a nuclear bomb. Now, Blix is head of weapons inspections in Iraq.

On the other side of the Asian continent, the ruler of North Korea, Kim Jung Il decided to use the Iraqi crisis to break all the rules of the game and to openly violate the terms of the NPT and the articles of agreement his father signed with the U.S. in 1994, by which North Korea would cease nuclear weapons development. The North Koreans sabotaged the equipment posted by the IAEA to monitor the nuclear development sites, and renewed activity at the facility for recycling nuclear fuel. In this case, too, ElBaradei and the IAEA only meekly protested. They left the Bush administration to face Kim alone, and meanwhile he has launched a missile into the Sea of Japan, for the second time in two weeks, to try to provoke the American president.

The U.S. did send B-52s and B-2s to Guam, as an act of deterrence against North Korea, but it's clear to all that Bush cannot open a second front in addition to the Iraq war. Tehran also understands that as long as the U.S. is busy with Iraq, Iran enjoys immunity from any American military action against their nuclear ambitions.

It's possible that the administration has already designated those two "axis of evil" countries as the next targets after Iraq, but by the time the U.S. can turn to those plans it might be too late. While the North Korean plans endanger mostly its neighbors and the stability of Southeast Asia, in Israel there are grave concerns about the acceleration of the Iranian nuclear project.

The real threat that we should fear is not the Iraqi missiles, which are unlikely to be fired at us, but the continuing development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Hopefully, the war in Iraq will be over quickly enough for the Americans to continue their global campaign against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.