Foreign Policy

One Down, One to Go

Does the nuke deal with North Korea make a U.S. strike on Iran more likely?

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Not to douse all the warm feelings flowing on the Korean peninsula at signs that North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons program, but this might not be about you. The Bush administration's sudden resolve to get to yes with Kim Jong Il comes just as the United States sends a third carrier battle group toward the Persian Gulf while pressing a case against Iran for attacks on American forces in Iraq.

Nothing would complicate, say, air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities like North Korea suddenly deciding to set off another nuke test or fling a "test" missile halfway across the Pacific. One nuclear showdown with an unpredictable regime is quite enough, thank you.

And it is certainly true that the agreement with North Korea represents significant movement by Washington, movement in the wrong direction according to conservative critics. The Wall Street Journal called the deal "faith-based nonproliferation" in a scathing editorial.

"Perhaps Mr. Bush feels this is the best he can do in the waning days of his Administration. Or perhaps, in the most favorable interpretation, he wants to clear the decks of this issue in order to have more political capital to control Iran's nuclear ambitions," the WSJ declared.

In this view, the Korean deal only is good if it really does free Bush to take on Iran.

Former Bush administration uber-hawk John Bolton had even less use for the deal.

"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,' in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil, for doing only partially what needs to be done," Bolton said on CNN.

But President Bush totally rejected that view when read back to him by reporters yesterday. "I strongly disagree," Bush said. "The assessment made by some that this is not a good deal is flat wrong."

Clearly then, Bush finds both the timing and particulars of the deal worthwhile, vital even, to his foreign policy. One need not even suggest cynical motives on the part of the Bush administration to see how a success with North Korea might advance a bellicose Iran agenda, although who knows if Bolton really might be down with the program and merely providing a little loud misdirection.

By making progress with North Korea, the Bush administration can tell the world that Washington can negotiate with just about anyone, even the crazy North Koreans. If Iran cannot come to the table on nuclear matters, then that is Tehran's fault. By extension, then, Washington has no choice but to take the military route to resolve the nuclear issue.

Conversely, there is also the possibility that success in North Korea really does boost diplomats like Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill within the administration, providing a counterbalance to the pro-strike faction. Should North Korea actually stick to the deal's specifics—a stretch, given—the reality of dismantling an Axis of Evil nuke capability via negotiation provides an obvious alternative to the military approach.

Anything that actually reduces the appetite for a military option for Iran inside the White House obviously would make the Korea deal doubly good news. In fact, in his press conference yesterday President Bush answered a question about face-to-face talks with Iran in an elliptical fashion that suggested some sort of multi-party talks like those held with North Korea. Or he may have been confused.

It may, in fact, be reading too much into such things to suggest that Iran policy is still uncertain. Some experts in foreign policy and military affairs think that the decision to make 2007 the year of Iran has long since been made. If so, that would make the breakthrough in Korea a flashing staging light before the main event goes green.