South Korean protesters in Seoul burn pictures of Kim Jong-un during an anti-North Korea rally following a nuclear test conducted by North Korea on February 12.
The foreign policy issue that seems to swallow all others in Washington — the prospect of a nuclear Iran — absorbed on Tuesday even the reality of a nuclear North Korea, as President Barack Obama’s critics moved to cast the isolated country’s third nuclear test as a kind of trial run for the Islamic Republic.
Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain made the connection on Tuesday.
The incident “a test for the administration and Congress” and “a foreshadowing of things to come” with Iran, Graham told BuzzFeed. “The more they do this and the more the international community and the United States give them a pass, the more likely we’re going to have a nuclear armed Iran.”
“I’m sure the Iranians are paying close attention to our failure to prevent the North Koreans from continuing successful nuclear program,” McCain told BuzzFeed, adding, “it’s a also a serious mistake by the Bush administration to remove the sanctions when they did, so it’s a bipartisan failure.”
“President Obama’s reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test will be felt in Tehran,” former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tweeted on Monday night when the news broke.
North Korea’s missile test was its third, in defiance of an international ban. The action drew condemnations from the U.S., South Korea, the U.N. Security Council, and even from ally China. Observers fear that North Korea may have successfully “miniaturized” a nuclear device, which means that it could be closer to developing a warhead that could fit on the top of a missile.
Foreign policy hands close to the administration dismissed the parallel Republicans are seeking to draw.
“Every case has lessons for another but the two cases are different in important ways,” said Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American scholar on Middle Eastern studies and former advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke. Graham’s and McCain’s comparison “does not mean anything,” he said.
“In each case, we’d coordinate with allies,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. “And the relevant allies’ perspectives are very different.”
Richard Bush and Jonathan Pollock of the Brookings Institution wrote on Tuesday that there was little the U.S. could really have done to hold off Kim Jong-un from ordering the test and offering the “current Iran menu” of sanctions as a possible next step:
Some will fault Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul for not having engaged Pyongyang to head off the tests of recent months, but there is little or no evidence that Kim Jong Un would have been any more responsive to engagement than his father. Instead, the US, Japan, and South Korea have sought in recent years to “sharpen North Korea’s choices,” between sustaining its nuclear and missile programs, in contrast to heightened economic and political benefits with the international community. All three states will likely respond to today’s test by seeking to tighten sanctions. There is ample room to improve the implementation of existing measures, and new financial sanctions are available (see the current Iran menu). But a question lingers, are we indeed shaping North Korea’s choices or is it shaping ours?
The news comes just as President Obama prepares to give a State of the Union speech that is expected to include significant attention to the issue of reducing nuclear arsenals around the world. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wouldn’t comment on whether or not the North Korea nuke test would make it into the speech, and didn’t respond to a query about what impact the incident could have towards our relationship with Iran.