Israel still has Iran in its sights

Israeli spokesman Mark Regev tells the NS that "a nuclear-armed Iran is something we will not accept".

In tomorrow's New Statesman, NS editor Jason Cowley reports from Tel Aviv on the mood inside Israel following the launch of "Operation Pillar of Defence". He finds a population almost entirely united behind Binyamin Netanyahu's government, with dissenting voices increasingly marginalised.

Among other things, Israel's attack on Gaza was intended as a warning to Iran, the nation that it regards as its existential enemy. By neutralising Hamas's military capability, it aims to limit the group’s ability to retaliate in the event of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, a move that it is openly contemplating. Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister's spokesman, tells Jason:

A nuclear-armed Iran is something we will not accept. No serious person thinks that their nuclear programme is benign. We have little doubt that, by the middle of next year, the Iranians could have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.

He adds:

They call for wiping Israel off the face of the earth and we take that threat very seriously. We have thought about the possible blowback but the bottom line is that the challenges involved in trying to prevent Iran from proliferating are dwarfed by the challenges involved in dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.

You have to operate realpolitik. You need sanctions, economic, diplomatic and political pressure, but you also need a military option. The paradox is that if you have a credible military option you might not have to use it, and conversely if you take the military option off the table you are undermining the chances of a peaceful solution.

An Israeli strike on Iran could act as the spark for a regional conflagration, with, as Jason notes, "attacks on western and Jewish interests throughout the world, Hezbollah and Iranian rocket attacks on northern Israel, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz and a consequent spike in the world oil price, even a possible land invasion of Israel". Should that come to pass, the events of the last week will pale by comparison.

You can read Jason's piece in full as well as Phoebe Greenwood's report from Gaza in tomorrow's NS.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a diagram of a bomb to describe Iran's nuclear programme while delivering his address to the UN general assembly. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.