How can dictatorships be deterred from developing operational nuclear arsenals? If deterrence fails, can they be prevented from achieving this objective without triggering a great war? The United States faces these questions in its dealings with North Korea. Since Donald Trump entered the White House on January 20, 2017, Pyongyang has exercised thirteen missile tests. The last two exhibited long range launching capabilities that presumably can reach American territory. According to a recent Washington Post report, the Defense Intelligence Agency concludes that Pyongyang developed the technology to miniaturize nuclear bombs so they will fit North Korean missiles. In response, Trump stated that if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. it will be “met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”
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The challenges Washington faces today when crafting a strategy against North Korea may be the salvo to the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program after the nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers in July 2015 ends. It may occur gradually starting in 2023 after the first main restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs are lifted, or earlier as a result of a defection by one of the members. In fact, the campaign against North Korea is not only an important learning opportunity to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb, but could also determine American's position against Iran when the constraints over its nuclear program wane.
Today the dominant strategy against both North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear aspirations is to convince them that their nuclear programs jeopardize their survival, and thus they should neglect these aspirations. Forfeiting the campaign against North Korea will signal that nuclear weapons are not a risk for the regime but rather offer assurances against external threats. Washington was willing to attack Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein before he developed nuclear bombs, as well as Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi after he conceded his arsenal. If Washington does not attack North Korea despite statements made by both democratic and republican presidents expressing an unequivocal commitment to prevent a North Korean nuclear threat, the underlying message to Iran will be clear: to avoid the Iraqi or Libyan fate, Tehran should make sure to have nuclear weapons.
If Pyongyang establishes a mutual balance of terror with the U.S., there will be severe ramifications on how U.S. commitments are perceived by its allies in East Asia. Today the burden of facing nuclear threat is mainly on the shoulders of U.S. allies. If the Kim regime poses a direct nuclear threat against the American people, the U.S. resolve to protect its allies will be significantly questioned. This could gradually generate a domino effect that would undermine U.S. credibility in the world and shake its international position. This impact will surely resonate in the Middle East among U.S. friends as well as foes.
The North Korean trajectory also implies that the U.S. position vis a vis Iran will be weakened. Korea will be the most urgent issue on the administration’s agenda in the coming years. Hence, it will probably marginalize other threats including the Iranian one. Even if President Trump genuinely plans to counter Iran’s activities in the Middle East he will have less time and resources to do so. Subsequently, American leverage over Russia and China – essential partners for an effective international campaign against Iran – will be diminished as well. For example, if the U.S. and China (North Korea’s only ally) struggle over the Korean issue, their ability to collaborate against Iran will be abated. If the U.S. concedes on strategic assets, such as the deployment of the anti-ballistic missile THAAD system in order to ensure Chinese support in efforts against Pyongyang, American attempts to attract China to collaborate against Iran will be limited.
Nevertheless, a successful campaign against North Korea can reinforce the campaign against Iran. An assertive campaign that includes collaboration with China and Russia will demonstrate American resolve and capacity to prevent regimes determines as rogues from acquiring nuclear weapons. It will strengthen the message that nuclear weapons are a threat to a regime, and not an asset.
A fruitful American campaign can also impact Iran’s capacities, not merely its willingness to use them. Tehran used North Korean knowledge to build its nuclear program, and now takes advantage of the North Korean missile program to improve its delivery capabilities. This operational element is crucial in translating Iran’s nuclear capabilities into operational military ones. When the nuclear deal ends, Iran’s delivery capacity will be the most crucial component in identifying the nuclear program as a direct nuclear threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region. Placing constraints on the North Korean missile program will hinder Iran’s processes in advancing its technological skills. At the very least, it will force Tehran to conduct tests themselves, thus inviting an international response.
The American administration still has time to develop an effective strategy against the North Korean nuclear threat. All eyes from the Middle Eastern front will be watching. Success is imperative to prevent a nuclear threat from North Korea in the short term, and a greater threat from Iran in the long term. Failure against Pyongyang may be a prelude to a more challenging threat from Tehran.
Dr. Avner Golov is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.