North Korea’s most recent long-range ballistic missile tests, which demonstrate progress toward an ability to strike U.S. soil with a nuclear weapon, mostly concern the United States and its Asian allies. But the repercussions of the test are felt well beyond Asia and North America. Across the Middle East, the inevitable question is whether Washington’s apparent willingness to live with North Korean nuclear weapons—even those that can now be delivered to the United States itself—foreshadows what is to come in Iran. Leaders and populations around the region, especially in Israel and the Gulf states, fear that they may be watching a movie play out in East Asia that will soon be screened closer to home.
The concern is not misplaced, and the similarities between the two cases are disconcerting. In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration announced an “Agreed Framework” that would “freeze and then dismantle” the North’s nuclear program, promising that “South Korea and our other allies will be better protected,” “the entire world will be safer,” and “the United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments.” But Pyongyang cheated, the deal collapsed, and, within a decade, North Korea was back on the path to the bomb.
The George W. Bush administration tried a more confrontational approach, but it failed, too. Despite a new doctrine of preemption and pledges to prevent hostile actors such as North Korea from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Bush could do nothing but “condemn this provocative act” when Pyongyang tested a weapon in 2006. And despite pledges that North Korea would be held “fully accountable” if it proliferated nuclear weapons or materials, the administration stood by without acting as Pyongyang proceeded to build a secret, plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor in Syria. According to senior U.S. intelligence officials, that effort was only stopped when Israel took matters in its own hands and bombed the site in 2007. Even though a military option for Iran is
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