In recent days, news about the North Korean and Iranian crises have been driven out of the headlines and off television screens by other events. That’s unfortunate.  Attempts by these countries to acquire nuclear weapons have implications for many places. No country is likely to be more directly impacted than Israel.

Let’s start with some history.

Early in the first term of his presidency, Bill Clinton declared  that the United States would not allow North Korea acquire nuclear weapons. Shortly after the President made that declaration, the CIA told him that North Korea already had one or two nuclear warheads. Clinton adjusted his policy. He signed onto negotiations first initiated by his predecessor, President Jimmy Carter. Clinton agreed to let North Korea delay for five years the fulfillment of its obligations to the rules of the International Atomic Energy Association and postpone for ten years the dismantling of its known nuclear weapons program.

Shortly after this agreement was finalized, the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik identified and wrote about its flaws.

“The North Koreans can break out of the deal at any time, or perhaps more likely, cheat on it piecemeal and demand new concessions in return for fulfilling prior obligations. Even in the unlikely event that the deal is honored, we have set an ominous precedent by paying a $5-billion bribe (in the form of oil supplies and ‘peaceful’ nuclear reactors) plus diplomatic inducements to a rogue state in exchange for its agreement to cease flagrant violation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

Muravchik turned out to be prophetic. The Clinton administration’s efforts to stop North Korea failed and the George W. Bush administration inherited the issue. In it’s early days, the Bush administration also tried to get tough. In his 2002 State of the Union Speech, the President included North Korea — along with Iran and Iraq — as a member of what he called the “Axis of Evil”. Before “Six Party Talks” on North Korea’s nuclear program in 2003 Bush’s Under Secretary of State, John Boulton, made a speech in Seoul South Korea in which he correctly blamed the nuclear problem on North Korea’s “tyrannical dictator”. But the Bush administration distanced itself from Boulton’s remarks. Boulton was also denied a central role in the talks even though, in theory, he had responsibility for arms proliferation policy .A decade has passed. Ongoing diplomacy has yielded no breakthroughs.

Diplomacy with Iran has been similarly unproductive. According to Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, the Iranian policy of the United States and other Western democracies have been paralyzed by the false assumptions of policy makers.

“There has been abundant deceit — self-deceipt- on the other side as well. Among those self-deceptions: that the intelligence on Iran had been ‘hyped’ by a warmongering Bush administration. That Iran’s nuclear intentions were unknowable. That Iran was using its nuclear card not to build weapons but to seek a grand bargain with which it could normalize its relations with the West. That punishing sanctions would swiftly bring the Iranians to heel. That the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists could, in tandem with a cyberwarfare campaign achieve decisive results without the risk of air strikes.


But perhaps the greatest of self-deceptions has been the view that Iran is a rational actor that would inevitably turn out to be a ‘responsible’ nuclear power. This argument always suffered from many defects, among them the defect of assuming that rationality is understood in the same way in Tehran as it is in Washington. But no less a problem with the argument is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime as its premise. Iran’s leaders may not be ‘suicidal’ but that depends on the lengths of their time horizons. A regime that is planning for the long haul will probably husband its resources. But what if Iran’s leaders  believe their regime has not that long to go?”

Do the Iranian mullahs really believe that their days in power are numbered, as Stephens seems to suggest? Probably not. According to perhaps the world’s foremost authority on antisemitism, Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich, other regimes in the region rightly have felt threatened by Iran, as opposed to the other way around. Wistrich portrays assertive Iranian mullahs, obsessed with the notion of exporting their revolution. They think, according to Wistrich, this will end in their own messianic triumph — not in any imminent downfall.

“From the outset [Ayatollah] Khomeini’s Islamic Republic had championed the export of the Islamic Revolution to Afghanistan, Lebanon  and Palestine as well as the transformation of ordinary Muslims into jihadi fighters who were carriers of a universal Islamic message. Khomeini always insisted on the interchangeability of the Iranian state and the Islamic Revolution, whose teaching were to spread to every corner of the Muslim world. Even before the hegemonic ambitions of a nuclear-armed Iran began to haunt the sheep of the more moderate Arab  leaders (and especially of Iran’s Gulf neighbors, the Khomeinist revolutionary jihad became a source of alarm in the region. These fears have been exacerbated by the successes of such Iranian proxies as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and by the disintegration of post-Saddam Iraq.

Yet, there could be disastrous consequences resulting from allowing either Iran or North Korea to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

A nuclear North Korea not only threatens democratic South Korea but also Japan, Taiwan and parts of China — including some of its largest cities. Some say that a North Korean nuclear warhead carried on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile could reach the west coast of the United States.

One shudders to think about how nuclear weapons would empower Iran. Wistrich writes.

“Once in possession of nuclear weapons it would be a deadly not only to Israel and to the Middle East but to virtually all of Europe, and have the ability to severely intimidate the Gulf States and halt the flow of oil to the entire industrialized world including the United States. In seeking Israel’s destruction, the theocratic regime aims to control the Middle East. Its religious fanaticism is reinforced by imperial nationalism and Great Power aspirations with eventual world domination as a distant goal.”

The reluctance to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran and North Korea are understandable. The same characteristics  that makes these countries threatening also render military action to disarm them dangerous.

North Korea might try to fend off an attack on its nuclear facilities with a counterattack against one of the many large population centers within the range of its missiles. Because China is also North Korea’s main patron. many hope that China could get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. However, while China has recently given indications in recent days that it might be willing to co-operate with international efforts to disarm North Korea, any such co-operation is likely to be hesitant. In the 1950’s China sacrificed a million soldiers to install North Korea’s Communist dictatorship. The Korean War is still venerated in China as a great victory against American imperialism. All of this make it questionable that China would ever confront North Korea. The Chinese have had intimate knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear program but they have never shared this knowledge with the United States. A decade ago China’s foreign minister declared that the nuclear issue concerned only North Korea and the United States — one in which China has no interest. Every two years, the Chinese government issues a White Paper that assesses the country’s security environment. Usually American analysts are disappointed by the absence of useful information in these reports. But the 2013 edition, issued in mid-April, did raise some eyebrows. It claims that President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia creates a “volatile security situation”. The report further asserts, “Some country [most analysts think that this refers to the United States] has strengthened its Asia-Pacific alliances, expanded its military presence in the region and frequently makes the situation tenser.” The report also contains some anti-American conspiracy theories that can be found regularly in North Korean propaganda. China may be looking for an excuse to expand its own military influence in Southeast Asia. This further lessens the chances that it would do anything to help disarm North Korea.

 Iran is similarly capable of defending against an attack against its nuclear facilities through the threat of striking out against neighboring countries. In March the country’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened to annihilate Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel ever attacked Iran. Even if Iran doesn’t follow through on this specific threat, Iran’s Islamic surrogates — Hamas and Hezbollah — could fire missiles at Israelis from Lebanon and Gaza.

Such dangers my explain why, according to Wistrich,

“[Iranian President] Ahmadinejad believes that the West is weak and in retreat; that Iran can provoke the United States with impunity; that Iran will soon have nuclear weapons, irrespective of any sanctions and that Shia Islam is the wave of the future.”


About three years after Wistrich had provided this assessment of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullahs, Bret Stephens, last September, wrote the following passage, analyzing the western democracies’ weak-kneed “engagement” of Iran.

“The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel …. continues to threaten [military] action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt. The United States, both during the Bush and Obama administrations, has repeatedly signaled its profound ambivalence about Iran’s nuclear bids, insisting they are ‘unacceptable’ while indicating that we are unwilling to pay much  of a price to prevent them by any means necessary

Undoubtedly this explains the Iranian regime’s confidence.Thus Iran’s leaders can pursue their nuclear program with little fear for their survival. But this only makes me think of a more basic question. How is it that  rogue dictatorships have acquired the power to control the fate of millions of civilians living outside of their borders? Diplomats and politicians deserve much of the blame for failing to stop North Korea and Iran. But some of the blame should be shared by many of the writers, intellectuals and activists on the left who profess a concern for human rights and “social justice”.

Both Iran and North Korea have terrible human rights records. On this site, Shmuley Boteach recently wrote an excellent survey of repression in North Korea. At the Weekly Standard website, Joseph A, Bosco, a national security consultant and former Defense Department official, characterized as “monstrous” the regime’s treatment of its own people, He accused it of “condemning millions to privation and death”. Bosco wrote further,

“With the entire country effectively a prison, the government operates scores of gulags where hundreds of thousands face forced labor, torture, rape, forced abortion and death without charge or trial.”

North Korea is probably the most repressive regime on earth.

Part of Iran’s record of human rights violation is well known. Ahmadinejad’s suppression of his political opponents both before and after the rigged 2009 elections was well documented in the international press. However, the press has paid far less attention to the persecution of followers of minority faiths. A UN report issued last March found that Iran had intensified violent crackdowns on Christians and the followers of non-Muslim minority religions. At least 13 Protestants are now being detained because of their faith and more than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010. The UN report also concluded that Iran’s 350,000 followers of the Baha’i faith have also been the victims of state repression. Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says, “Over the past year, the Iranian government has stooped to new lows by incarcerating infant children with their Baha’i mothers and more clamping down on Christian converts from Islam.” Ahmad Shaheed, the UN expert on the state of human rights in Iran claims that are currently 110 Baha’is being detained for practicing their faith, including two women who are nursing their children in prison. It’s estimated that another 133 Bahai’s are awaiting to serve their sentences, and that another 268 are awaiting trial. 

Holocaust denial is central to the ideology of the Iranian regime. It is not merely the obsession of Ahmadinejad. In 2006, the regime hosted a two-day conference that featured such luminaries of the Holocaust Denial Movement as Former Klu Klux Klan grand wizard, David Duke, French author Robert Faurisson, and Australian “Holocaust questioner” Gerald Fredrick Tauben. In 2007, The speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani declared the Holocaust to be an “open question”.

Has the Iranian leadership’s promotion of Holocaust denial diplomatically hurt the country? I’m not sure. James Kirchick of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies writes, “For many in the West, merely raising the point of Iranian Holocaust denial is a bothersome distraction, almost always a provocation of ‘neocons’ or ‘Likudniks’ desperate for a reason to bomb Tehran to smithereens.”

It’s clear that were Iran or North Korea to drop its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons — admittedly unlikely in either instance –much of the rest of the international community would be ready to restore normal relations with that country.Perhaps this is inevitable given how entrenched  these regimes have become. But leaving either regime in power shouldn’t leave anyone happy.

Those who have anointed themselves as the champions of “social justice” have used their support in certain social and political causes to wrap themselves in self-righteousness.Indeed, many of these causes have been noble. But support of noble causes is alone not sufficient for the promotion of social justice. While it’s impossible for anyone to protest every tyrannical government or human rights abuser, a modicum of consistency is required. To me, that means more attention focused and more protests being aimed at the worst regimes.Therefore, it’s hard to understand why North Korea and Iran have received more attention from those who claim to pursue social justice.

True, the North Korean regime is so repressive that the country has been closed off from the rest of the world. Getting information out of North Korea is extremely difficult. Outsiders don’t know if they can effect on the behavior of the regime or the lives of ordinary North Koreans. But isn’t the extreme cruelty of North Korea precisely the reason for more and louder protests?

The latest crisis in North Korea has gotten me to think about the makers of the movie and television series MASH. Through comedy and satire they tried to show that the American military confrontation of North Korea, 60 years ago was a worthless endeavor. However the current crisis dramatically highlights what we could have known for decades. The outcome of the war was very significant for Koreans. The quality of their lives ended up being highly impacted by which side of the armistice line they ended up on.

Even if overlooking Iran’s horrible human rights rights can somehow be justified, shouldn’t its promotion of Holocaust denial be sufficient for its ostracism from the international community? After all, denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense in many countries. When in 2010, one of the most notorious deniers Ernst Zundel was prevented from re-entering his adopted country of Canada after spending 5 years in a German jail, Immigration Minister Vic Toeves said, “The decision reinforced the government of Canada’s position that this country will not be a safe haven for an individual to who poses a risk to Canada’s national security.” It in no way detracts from how loathsome Zundel is to recognize that without the power of a state he can never be as much of threat to anyone’s national security of Canada or any other country than the Islamic mullahs who run Iran.How can those who claim to be committed to social justice be sanguine about leaving in power a regime utterly committed to spreading anti-Semitism and other hatreds? One would think that they would be in the forefront of efforts to rid Iranians of rulers that subscribe to Holocaust denial.

The indignation of “social justice” advocates is selective, and more often than not the target of the indignation is determined by the identity of the offender rather than the seriousness of the offense.Although there are exceptions, its almost predicts which countries will draw their ire and which countries will be ignored. Here’s how a tyrannical dictator can evade scrutiny and censure from the “social justice” community: declare himself to be socialist, anti-American, anti-Zionist or anti-colonialist. Pity anyone who is being persecuted by such a regime. It’s almost certain that their plight won’t be widely publicized outside of their country. However if the country happens to be: the United States, Israel, or portrayed as a cog in the globalized capitalist system it will most certainly be the target of the wrath of these activists and much of the international press.

These days one often hears Israelis making the argument that Israel should never defy international opinion because Israel vitally needs the friendship of other nations. However  the international reputation of particular countries often is not influenced by how they actually behave. Therefore, there is probably little that Israel can do improve its international stature. In any case, Israel, of all countries, shouldn’t be going out of its way to appease the international community. Zionism originally was a response to the powerless of the Jewish people which has exposed them to the whims of the world and left them powerless to defend themselves against any rising tide of antisemitism. With a nation-state of her own Jews would be able to gain control of their own history and destiny, thereby insulating themselves from of vicissitudes of public opinion. Since, as we have seen, world opinion rarely reflects moral considerations, Israelis should not feel guilty about angering its international critics to protect its national security and interests.