If you like what is happening with North Korea at the moment, you will love what happens when Iran goes nuclear.
In case anyone is in any doubt, it is always worth remembering that North Korea is a basket-case of a country – probably in the most abysmal situation of any country on earth (not forgetting the Middle East). Its people intermittently starve by the millions, and all of them lack even the most basic of amenities. As Shin Dong-hyuk and a few other unbelievably fortunate escapees have attested, concentration camps (for once the term is not inaccurate) are maintained across the country. And even those fortunate enough not to be in them are cut off from the outside world by a regime which has the unique selling point of being the world's only Stalinist monarchy. The authorities have no ability to provide the most basic services to the majority of its population; and after years of sanctions, can do almost nothing either internally or externally to alter the situation it finds itself in. Yet here it is, dictating the news agendas of the world.
And why? For two straightforward reasons. First, because it has a new leader of whom everyone is ignorant. No one – no other government, intelligence agency or foreign office – is entirely sure of his intentions. We do know that he spent some time at a school in Switzerland and has a fondness for basketball. But apart from that and a few other tiny details, there is almost nothing known about him. It was the same with his father and indeed his grandfather. We knew what type of sushi the current Kim's father liked, and we knew he was a fan of Hollywood movies, but aside from such ephemera we had almost no idea of the type of man he was or the type of things he thought. Now his son – the third generation of the family to reign – is even more of a mystery. So there, undoubtedly, is the first problem.
But the second reason is even far more straightforward: North Korea is now in the Nuclear Club. No one is quite sure how rudimentary are the devices that they have set off (including the third such test just this February). But nevertheless they have managed it. Assisted by any number of rogue states, networks and cartels, the most isolated regime on earth has finally got into the only club that matters. And why? Why would a regime allow its people to suffer the most biting sanctions, the most appalling privations and itself to suffer the most complete international isolation – just for the possession of this one type of weaponry?
It is because the regime in Pyongyang knows something that everybody now knows but which those countries already in the Nuclear Club are increasingly unwilling to admit: the very clear lesson of the fate of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.
Gaddafi, you will remember, committed what is a clear, cardinal, school-boy error for dictators. In 2003, concerned by the US/UK and allied invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein for his WMD program, Gaddafi suddenly volunteered up – to the US and UK premiers it should be remembered, not the UN – his somewhat more-advanced-than-anybody-had-realized WMD program. Having seen Saddam Hussein fall for less, Gaddafi decided it was more trouble than it was worth in those days to continue going down that route.
But what a difference a decade makes. For apart from anything else, Gaddafi himself is now history. Having given up his WMD program, he then made the terrible error, once a rebellion against his rule began, of beginning to massacre his own people . And so – for humanitarian reasons – NATO intervened and toppled Gaddafi. And the last anyone saw of Gaddafi, he was being assaulted by a mob, beaten, having a knife put in every conceivable part of his body and then shot.
If you were a Kim or a Mullah, what lesson would you take from that? Personally, putting my dictator hat on I would take one lesson: "nuke up fast." And certainly, on no account should you disarm. Disarmed despots are soon-to-be-dead despots. It is a lesson the North Koreans have taken on board with understandable eagerness and with – to date – considerable success. After all, for all the latest round of bellicose rhetoric against South Korea, there is no US or NATO or any other kind of talk of, for instance, regime-change in North Korea. The system there may be – against stiff competition – the worst human rights violator in the world. Yet nobody is talking about toppling Kim. They are elementary nuclear, after all.
And this is the lesson you will be imbibing also if you are a Supreme Leader, President or even just some common Mullah in Tehran. Come sanctions, international pressure or anything else, the precedents of Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Un will be fresh in your mind. And most fresh will be the thought that one of them is dead and the other alive.
Of course if Iran gets the nukes the results will not be exactly the same. No two dictatorships are ever exactly alike. But there will be striking similarities in the way it plays out. For instance, just as with North Korea, nobody will be able to guess what any particular new leader – in what will then be an eternal regime – actually thinks or what his personal or political ambitions truthfully are. We won't end up being able to read them much better than we currently read the Kims. But in any event, it won't matter. Because then we will know what the Mullahs know now – that nukes are the way to perpetual survival for them, and perpetual nightmare for everyone else.