Iran and North Korea Again: The Perils of Brinkmanship

Commentary No. 282, June 1, 2010

The United States has been clamoring for almost two decades that it is determined to prevent Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers. In-between more urgent issues, the U.S. government regularly reasserts the importance of this objective. Since both Iran and North Korea are clearly unwilling to cede to these periodically-reasserted U.S. demands, the United States constantly makes threats of further action of some sort.

After all this time, should we take this seriously? What has been going on is best summarized as brinkmanship, sometimes called a “game of chicken.” Each time the game is replayed, it is always a question of who will blink first, and call off the implied ultimate escalation into warfare. Usually the United States plays this game with Iran and North Korea one at a time. Right now, it is playing it with both simultaneously. On the one hand, the simultaneity makes it more difficult to believe the seriousness of U.S. intent. On the other hand, it makes the game more perilous.

What are the current stories? In the case of Iran, the United States has been trying for some months now to obtain from the U.N. Security Council a new resolution imposing further sanctions on Iran for refusing the Security Council’s resolution demanding that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium. To get such a further resolution, the United States has been negotiating with Russia and China for their support. At the moment, these two countries seem to have agreed to support a resolution, but one weaker than the one the United States wants, and in return for diverse concessions on other issues.

The United States has assumed up to now that once it got the support of Russia and China, it would be able to get a unanimous resolution from the Security Council. Suddenly, two of the non-permanent members – Brazil and Turkey – entered the picture and engaged in very public diplomacy on this issue. Their leaders arranged with Iran to swap about half its low enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. Brazil, Turkey, and Iran argued that this deal goes a long way towards meeting U.S. demands. The United States does not agree at all and has said it will proceed with pushing for its resolution in the Security Council.

The United States does not know how to deal with the Brazilian/Turkish entry into the public game. They are both supposed to be friendly countries. They are both supposed to be junior nations who should leave such matters to the permanent members of the Security Council. It seems the United States may even have endorsed their initiative on the assumption it would fail and the U.S. argument would be fortified. This didn’t happen. Brazil and Turkey succeeded. At least they think so. And they don’t intend to be treated as junior nations who have to wait on their elders. They actually think that the United States should hail their agreement with Iran as a success and withdraw the resolution.

In the meantime, all eyes are on Korea. There, on March 26, a South Korean warship sank. At first, the South Koreans said they thought it was an accident. But then, two months later, which is a suspiciously long time, they announced they have proof that a North Korean submarine sank the ship with a torpedo. Some South Korean analysts suggest that the ship, which was engaged in a joint military exercise with the United States, was actually sunk in error by a U.S. submarine. This suggestion has been ignored by the world press, which rather is debating the motives of North Korea for doing this. Hillary Clinton says she can’t understand why they would do such a thing.

Whatever the case, South Korea has broken its existing ties with North Korea, which has reciprocated. South Korea’s present conservative government has now scuttled whatever remained of the previous president’s “sunshine policy” toward North Korea. The United States wants a Security Council resolution. North Korea says that, if one is passed, they will withdraw from cooperation with international inspections of their nuclear facilities.

So, we’re into high-level brinkmanship. And the world’s markets reflect extreme nervousness. What will happen now? Obviously, everyone is playing to their home audience. The U.S. government wants to show the U.S. Congress that it is “doing something” serious. So does the South Korean government. So do the Iranian and North Korean governments. And so, no doubt, do the Brazilian and Turkish governments.

Who will blink first? I don’t believe any of the front-line nations actually wants a war. There is too much to lose for each of them. The real decison however lies with none of these actors but with the Chinese government. China is calling the shots. What kind of a resolution will the Chinese support now in either of the two cases? China obviously wants very much for everyone to calm down, and to keep calm. The problem is that brinkmanship can be a dangerous game when the world – its geopolitics and its economy – is so chaotic and volatile. Accidents could happen. Some military officer somewhere, with his hand on the trigger, could make a mistake – either accidentally or deliberately.

We are living in interesting times.