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The overlooked Iran-Syria-North Korea strategic linkage

Special to WorldTribune.com

Gregory R. Copley, Global Information System/Defense & Foreign Affairs

Events in, and linked to, the Eastern Mediterranean continued to be the strategic dynamic of global affairs during March 2013 and beyond. Even developments — seemingly moving toward war as far as Western public perceptions were concerned — on the Korean Peninsula were intrinsically a component of the events within the Eastern Mediterranean focus.

[See Related Story: N. Korea’s nuke was bought and paid for by a key end-user — Iran]

The North Korean representative to the United Nations sits during the U.N. General Assembly on April 2 ahead of a vote on a U.N. treaty regulating the international arms trade. The treaty passed 154-3, with 23 abstentions. North Korea, Iran and Syria were the only countries that voted no.  /AFP-JIJI

The North Korean representative to the United Nations sits during the U.N. General Assembly on April 2 ahead of a vote on a U.N. treaty regulating the international arms trade. The treaty passed 154-3, with 23 abstentions. North Korea, Iran and Syria were the only countries that voted no. /AFP-JIJI

North Korea’s apparent threat of war in East Asia; the foreign-financed “civil war” in Syria; the broad strategic effects of the staggeringly myopic approach to a European Union (EU) financial restructuring plan in Cyprus; the misperceptions of a Turkey-Israel rapprochement; the underlying reversal of Western European-Russian energy and political relations (but not the dependencies); the deepening absence of U.S. influence in Eurasia: all were absolutely interconnected and interactive issues. And there are, at the time of writing, many sub-sets to this, including the great Turkish competition with Iran, which by March 2013 was reaching an interesting dimension; and the continuing deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

But, as ever, the discreet accord between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) were playing a truly distinct role. Under this accord, struck between “Ayatollah” Ruhollah Khomeini and Kim Il-Sung in the 1980s, when Iran faced an existential threat, the DPRK would rattle sabers on the Korean Peninsula, distracting the U.S.; and when the DPRK faced such a threat, Iran would similarly distract the world powers. As a result, both the DPRK and Iran have become masters at a kind of brinkmanship which has had Western powers scratching their collective heads.

It is significant that, despite the bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang, including talk of targeting U.S. cities with nuclear weapons, North Korea has not, in fact, made any real war-footing deployments of forces. The U.S., in responding to what it portrayed as a North Korean threat, had, in fact, deployed significant new force elements to South Korea, but itself showed no coherent engagement plan for a “real war”.

Still, U.S. analysts seemed to begin to understand the significance of the Iran-DPRK link when it became clear that Iran had sponsored the nuclear weapon detonation in at Punggye-ri, DPRK, on Feb. 13, and then noted the September 2012 DPRK-Iran accord, and some earlier bilateral agreements between the two states.

Even so, the fundamental nature of the deep Iran-DPRK agreement on mutual strategic distraction — learned by Kim Il-Sung from earlier Soviet doctrine — was not fully understood by U.S. analysts, largely because of the stove-piping of regional specializations within the U.S. Intelligence and policy communities.

It is, however, such a time to again invoke the strategic distraction agreement, when Iran feels that its vital interests are jeopardized by the West’s alliance with some of the major Sunni wealth of the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Tier (principally Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) that Tehran has called the alliance into action to stop the U.S. and Sunni powers from overthrowing Syrian leader Bashar Assad and removing Iran’s control over its principal regional conduit into the West: Syria. It is not an insignificant call, either, as far as North Korea is concerned: Iran has become the principal source of economic and strategic support for the DPRK. Iran cannot be ignored when it calls for help. And the loss of Syria would be, for Iran, a decisive setback for its strategic future, and a possible consequent boost to Turkey’s, Qatar’s, and Saudi Arabia’s fortunes.

And yet the European Union (EU) powers and the U.S. view events in the Eastern Mediterranean through entirely localized prisms, seemingly unaware of the broader consequences of their actions in supporting the overthrow of Assad and sustaining the impression of Turkish strategic centrality. Disregarded are such issues as the reaction of Russia, the prospect that Cyprus may become “strategically unavailable” to the West, and so on.

The EU media and politicians — and particularly those of the eurozone states within the EU, but not exclusively — look at the Syrian issue separately from, for example, the question of Greek and Cypriot economic difficulties. Indeed, the eurozone policy officials, particularly led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seemed to think that the question of addressing Cyprus’ currently challenged banking sector as though it were merely a question of finances and accounting, instead of the strategic issue that it is; one in which the credibility of the European Union itself is now coming into question.

Certainly, the Eastern Mediterranean also continued to dominate U.S. strategic imagery during late March 2013, given the visit to the region by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Obama White House’s “search for successes” led it to create a bargaining situation with Israel, whereby Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have little option but to “apologize” to Turkey for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) actions in repelling the Turkish Government-sanctioned blockade-busting Mavi Marmara vessel when it attempted to go from Turkey into Gaza on May 31, 2010. This “apology” occurred, in a highly orchestrated manner, on March 22, from Tel Aviv Airport, in an improvised facility, just before President Barack Obama was due to leave for Jordan.

Clearly the call had been pre-arranged by the White House with Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan — probably during the March 1, visit by incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Ankara — but had not been set up in advance with the Israeli Prime Minister. Hence, the need for the last-minute improvisation in Tel Aviv to get the call organized as a publicity event (for Mr Obama) at the airport.

The apology by Netanyahu backfired after what seemed to be a telephone conversation in which the gesture was made by Netanyahu and accepted by Erdogan. Within a day, the Turkish Prime Minister said the apology was insufficient, and that it merely demonstrated that Turkey was a power which could demand, and get, whatever it wished.

Meanwhile, both the UK and U.S. have now abandoned any pretence of “non-involvement” in the Syrian “civil war”, and both governments in March 2013 made it clear that they would now step up the provision of weapons, training, and other services to the Syrian anti-Government forces. This absolutely and emphatically works in favor of Turkey (and its Sunni allies in this conflict) and against the interests of Israel, Cyprus, and, of course, Iran. There is a supposition in Washington (and London) that because the support for the anti-Assad forces in Syria is implicitly against Iranian interests it must therefore be in Israel’s and the West’s interests. However, “the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend”.

Israel, in fact, has more to fear from Sunni domination of Syria than it does from Iranian, or Shi’a, domination of the region. Indeed, the toppling of Assad could lead to the breakup of Syria, the destruction of the minority (Christian, Druze, Kurdish, Jewish, and other) communities in the country, and would almost certainly incite Iran to support Kurdish and Shi’a groups in a major insurrection inside Turkey, possibly leading to a civil war in Turkey.

Would the West support a “popular uprising” against the Turkish Government as Washington and London claim to be doing in supporting a “popular uprising” in Syria? Hardly likely.

What is clear from all of this is that Iran is not, and will not, merely accept the view that the West should break up Syria. It is, even in the face of punitive economic embargoes against the country, flexing its muscles through the DPRK. Europe’s, and the United States’, option has been to reinforce support for Turkey, on the basis of Cold War realities — indeed, on the basis of anti-Russian realities going back to the Crimean War of 1853-56 — rather than to look at the transformed geopolitical framework which makes Iran more important than (or at least as important as) Turkey.

The problem, for the West, is that it cannot understand the operating logic of the present Government of Iran (or, for that matter, of North Korea), and so it undertakes moves which not only fail to resolve differences, but actually exacerbate paranoia on both sides.

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