The White House and President Obama’s supporters insist that he’s making his first trip to Israel next month to assure the Jewish state that if push comes to shove with Iran, he’ll have Israel’s back. But North Korea’s nuclear test Tuesday morning could indicate that it’s already too late for that. If North Korea has the bomb, then for all practical purposes Iran does, too. If that’s so, then Obama’s policy of prevention has failed, and containment—a policy that the president has repeatedly said is not an option—is in fact all Washington has.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider the history of extensive North Korean-Iranian cooperationon a host of military and defense issues, including ballistic missiles and nuclear development, that dates back to the 1980s. This cooperation includes North Korean sales of technology and arms, like the BM-25, a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching Western Europe; Iran’s Shahab 3 missile is based on North Korea’s Nodong-1 and is able to reach Israel. Iran has a contigent of Iranian weapons engineers and defense officials stationed in North Korea. Meantime, North Korean scientists visit Iran. And last fall, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding regarding scientific, academic, and technological issues.
Given all this, there’s a great deal of concern that, as one senior U.S. official told the New York Times, “the North Koreans are testing for two countries.” The classic case of testing for another country is when the United States tested for the U.K. under the 1958 U.S.–U.K. Mutual Defense Agreement. The situation with the Hermit Kingdom and the Islamic Republic is different: The North Koreans certainly aren’t going to make the cooperation quite so explicit, but they’re also not hiding it. In January, Kim Jong-un boasted that the United States was the prime target for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. Earlier this month, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected the idea of nuclear negotiations with the United States. So, neither North Korea nor Iran believe the White House can do much to stop their march—one that they seem to be conducting in lockstep.