Not Just Iran’s Nuclear Future on the Line

Here is what the experts are saying about North Korea’s nuclear strike capabilities in response to Pyongyang’s threats to test another long-range missile on July 4:

Gen. James Cartwright, Deputy Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that North Korea would need three to five years to be able to launch a missile that was capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. Hawaii and Alaska are already in range. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the U.S. is ready and able to deal with any short-term threats to Hawaii “should it become necessary.”

Experts also believe that North Korea has enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half-dozen atomic bombs. The regime revealed last week that it is also producing enriched uranium, an alternative fissile material for producing atomic weapons. Based upon estimates of its nuclear operations, experts also believe that North Korea has about 8,000 spent fuel rods from its Yongbyong reactor which will allow for the further processing of plutonium — enough to make several bombs.

But what is most disturbing is the relevance of all this to events unfolding in Teheran. As Siegfried Hecker of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation has noted:

Of course, there is a terrifying way that North Korea could overcome its limitation while simultaneously helping another nuclear aspirant: It could work with Iran. Pyongyang lacks uranium centrifuge materials, technology, and know-how; Tehran has mastered them. Pyongyang has practical uranium metallurgy capabilities; Tehran has little. Pyongyang has its own nuclear test data; Tehran does not. Pyongyang knows all facets of plutonium technology; Tehran has little more than a plutonium-producing reactor under construction. Pyongyang helped Tehran establish a missile capability; now, Tehran’s crash missile-test program and Pyongyang’s long-range rocket tests could prove mutually beneficial.

This is where any perceived U.S. involvement in the Iranian turmoil would be unwise. If Ahmadinejad holds onto power and can point to U.S. meddling, it might push Tehran further in the direction of cooperating with Pyongyang, thereby accelerating the nuclearization of the Korean penisula and the destabilization of the region.

Whatever the outcome of the current crisis there is more at stake in the Iranian elections than democracy.