JERUSALEM — In Israel, many see North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and the West’s response to it as a dress rehearsal for a threat far closer to home.
Pyongyang’s announcement Monday that it had conducted its first controlled atomic blast stirred worldwide concern. This was especially felt in a Jewish state fearing similar moves by arch-foe Iran in coming years.
“This is a worrying and troubling development,” a senior Israeli diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Now that North Korea has proven nuclear capabilities, it is liable to collaborate with Iran and accelerate the Iranian nuclear program.”
That’s hardly a groundless concern: North Korea is believed to have sold Iran ballistic missile technology for years. Once Pyongyang learns how to produce nuclear warheads, it could provide those to its Persian client as well.
“The North Korean regime remains one of the world’s leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria,” President Bush said. “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement echoing international condemnation of the nuclear test.
“The test is an irresponsible and provocative act that could pose a serious threat to the regional stability of Northeast Asia and to global and international security,” it said.
U.N. observers in New York worried that North Korea’s test could embolden Iran, making Tehran less likely to comply with international efforts to curb its nuclear ambitions.
“Iran has obviously watched and learned some lessons here,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The ripple effects here are really profound.”
Among the lessons is that a policy of obfuscation and delay may buy enough time for Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold. Once that happens, Harris said, the strategic equation changes fundamentally.
“The underground testing is in many ways a threshold event, and its implications will be with us for years and decades,” Harris said. “It’s not one of those things that will come and go.”
The Korean test might affect the calculations of other states as well, Hebrew University political scientist Gabriel Sheffer said.
“It might increase the Egyptian tendency to move” in the direction of developing a bomb, Sheffer said. “The Egyptians are already nervous about the situation in Iran and Israel, they want Israel to sign the nuclear proliferation treaty, and the Saudis and the Egyptians are nervous about the Iranian situation.”
The Israeli government largely has been reticent about the need to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, apparently out of reluctance to risk distracting from the U.S.-led effort to apply diplomatic pressure. But some Israeli politicians were more outspoken.
“Perhaps the case of North Korea will teach the international community a lesson in the case of Iran,” Ephraim Sneh, a senior Labor Party lawmaker and retired army general, told Israel Radio. “We, the Israeli PR and policy apparatus, must take advantage of what happened to explain, and to persuade the international community to do something before it’s too late.”
The senior Israeli diplomat said he would urge the West to impose tough sanctions on already impoverished North Korea, including, possibly, a sea embargo. Failing that, the diplomat said, the West should consider resorting to military force that would topple Kim Jong-II’s regime and neutralize its nuclear threat.
Yet with the U.S.-led military coalition already heavily committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush administration deeply at odds with the European Union over the proper use of force, the Israeli diplomat’s vision looked hard to realize.
For the time being, Western power brokers have been at pains to draw distinctions between the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran.
“Iran is a democracy, however odious parts of the regime may be. North Korea is a dictatorship led by a man who people don’t know very much about,” a British government source told Reuters.
Sneh suggested that the North Korean crisis could be a chance for the West to hone a get-tough approach that could then be applied to Iran.
“The European states eschew conflict, even political and diplomatic confrontations or an economic clash. They balk at clashing with Iran, and this is evident,” he said. “And this is the time to show the world: Look what happens when you neglect your job.”
JTA Staff Writer Ben Harris in New York and JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.