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Iran, North Korea Are Bigger Threats Than Iraq Ever Was

Considering the growing nuclear menaces presented by Iran and North Korea and the apparent absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it appears that President Bush got his order wrong in confronting the “axis of evil.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Bush and his advisers may have believed that Iraq represented a looming threat to the United States, but now those from Iran and North Korea are far worse.

North Korea already has a few nuclear weapons and has declared it is building up its arsenal, which President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, says could make it “the world’s first nuclear Wal-Mart for terrorist groups.”

Iran, according to various experts, may be as little as two years away from developing a nuclear weapon. The Los Angeles Times reported that Iran is getting advice from North Korea on how to build warheads, suggesting that the two axis rogues are working together.

According to Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Bush about the Iranian threat in such dire terms as to suggest that Israel might be planning a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities like the one that destroyed Iraq’s in 1981.

In addition to its nuclear programs — three separate ones, in fact — Iran far outstrips Iraq as a promoter of terrorism, with its longstanding close ties to Hezbollah and, just lately, its harboring of top al Qaeda figures, possibly including Osama bin Laden’s sons and his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Moreover, Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq, has said that Iran is “unhelpfully” infiltrating agents into Shiite areas in southern Iraq, potentially to undercut the U.S. reconstruction effort.

What to do about North Korea and Iran need to be much bigger topics of Congressional attention than they have been and are worthwhile subjects for debate on the 2004 campaign trail.

Most Democratic candidates have expressed views on North Korea, calling for accession to Pyongyang’s demands for direct talks with the United States, but they have been largely silent on Iran.

Most Democratic foreign policy experts counsel “working with” so-called “moderate elements” of the Iranian government, even though militantly anti-U.S. mullahs are in charge of foreign policy, terrorism and internal security.

In foreign policy, Bush surely will be judged by voters primarily on the success of his Iraq policy and the war on terrorism, but Iran and North Korea could push themselves into top-level campaign issues if Bush doesn’t handle them successfully.

In both cases, ironically, he is pursuing the multilateralist policy that most Democrats advocate and accuse him of dismissing in favor of unilateralism.

In the case of North Korea, Bush has succeeded in getting North Korea to agree to talks in Beijing involving China, South Korea, Japan and Russia as well as the United States and North Korea, although it remains to be seen whether the six-way talks are really just a cover for the one-on-one negotiations that the administration has resisted.

Bush is also trying to get Russia to suspend nuclear aid to Iran and have the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency tighten inspections of Iran under the threat of sanctions.

Democrats claim that North Korea restarted its nuclear program after a six-year freeze during the Clinton administration because Bush refused to engage in negotiations for economic aid and a nonaggression pact.

They also claim that Bush exacerbated tensions with the North by listing it as an “axis of evil” country in his 2002 State of the Union address and by telling author Bob Woodward that he personally “loathes” dictator Kim Jong Il for the prison-camp nation that he runs.

Democrats assert that both North Korea and Iraq have been inspired to accelerate their nuclear programs by Bush’s words, his pre-emption policy and his attack on Iraq, which convinced them that possessing nuclear weapons will deter attack.

Administration officials counter that both Iran and North Korea have been pursuing nuclear and missile programs for years, not just since 2001.

They also say, correctly, that North Korea began cheating on its 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration almost immediately and that engaging in direct talks would have been a reward for misbehavior.

What counts, of course, is not who wins a debate over North Korea and Iran policy, but what happens — whether Bush succeeds in halting the threats those two countries pose.

In both cases, the administration has been divided between Pentagon hawks who oppose conciliation with the two regimes and State Department diplomats who want to “engage.”

In Iran’s case, the administration seems to be hoping that pro-democratic forces in the population will succeed in toppling the Islamic regime before it develops nuclear weapons.

In the North Korean case, it hopes that China can be induced — by the prospect that a nuclear North Korea will lead South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to go nuclear — to threaten the Pyongyang regime with a cutoff of food and supplies.

In the meantime, military options have to be considered as a final resort. An attack on North Korea’s nuclear installations could lead to all-out war on the peninsula, causing tens of thousands of casualties. An attack on Iran’s facilities would be easier, but could lead to an attack on U.S. forces in Iraq.

Bush says he won’t tolerate North Korea or Iran becoming a nuclear power. He needs to be judged on how well he delivers on that assertion.

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