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The situation playing out now with North Korea is a nightmare scenario of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
It offers a partial preview of the sorts of dangers the world would face if Iran ever obtained nuclear weapon capability. And it vindicates the use of preemptive military strikes to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of autocratic regimes, like the one that was launched – according to foreign news sources – by Israel a decade ago, on September 6, 2007.
On Sunday, North Korea, a country run by a madman, conducted its biggest nuclear test to date, setting off an explosion that Pyongyang said was caused by the detonation of an advanced hydrogen bomb. The tremor that resulted was said to be 10 times more powerful than the tremor picked up after the last test a year ago. Since 2006 North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests.
US President Donald Trump immediate reaction was registered, as is his custom, on his personal Twitter account.
“North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”
And, in a more strident message, Trump wrote: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” French President Emmanuel Macron urged the UN Security Council to react quickly and decisively.
“The international community must treat this new provocation with the utmost firmness, in order to bring North Korea to come back unconditionally to the path of dialogue and to proceed to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear and ballistic program,” he said.
China, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency also weighed in.
But what can any of them do? No one wants to play chicken with Kim Jong Un and risk a nuclear Armageddon.
Iran’s mullahs, meanwhile, are carefully monitoring the developments. True, North Korea and Iran are radically different culturally. Iran is governed by religious fanatics who look to usher in a messianic age ruled by Shi’ites.
North Korea, in contrast, is run by a secular tyrant.
However, North Korea offers Iran a test case in the wonders of obtaining nuclear weapons. And it offers the world a sharp rebuke for past inaction and a foreboding warning for the future.
A small but aggressive nation with limited economic and military means has succeeded in leveraging its power to intimidate while remaining utterly immune to the influence of the international community – all accomplished by simply obtaining nuclear weapons.
Tehran has an opportunity to watch how the international community reacts – or rather fails to react – when Pyongyang fires a missile over Japan, as it did in August, or when it detonates a hydrogen bomb, as it did Sunday.
Trump might tweet, Macron might threaten, but the real danger of sparking a nuclear war will have a chilling effect on rational decision-making with regard to using military options to stop Pyongyang.
The Islamic Republic’s leadership did not need Sunday’s hydrogen bomb test to become convinced of the merits of obtaining an atomic bomb. As a nation of Shi’ites surrounded by a Sunni majority, Tehran’s motivation from the outset in obtaining nuclear weapons was first and foremost an insurance policy against being bullying around.
Libya’s lesson was not missed by the Iranians. The US’s toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime under the pretext that he had weapons of mass destruction scared Muammar Gaddafi into disarming his country from nuclear weapons. Less than a decade later he was overthrown.
We do not want to think about what would have happened if Syria had succeeded, with North Korea’s help, in obtaining nuclear weapons instead of reportedly being stopped by a preemptive attack. President Bashar Assad had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people. We don’t know what he would have done had he obtained nuclear weapons.
There is a lesson to be learned from North Korea by the international community as well. Nothing came of the more than two years of negotiations with Pyongyang. No country stopped North Korea. The West ultimately accepted a North Korea with nuclear weapons capability. The same mistake must not be made again with Iran.
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