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Iran Nuclear Bomb

Obama continues to struggle with how to get the Iranians to stop developing what appears to be the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The Iranians, of course, deny any such intention, but they also refuse international access to the critical facilities. The Israeli government of Netanyahu says it sees the Iranian nuclear push as a mortal threat, and it seems increasingly difficult for Obama to restrain Netanyahu from ordering a unilateral preemptive attack on Iran, which of course would have incalculable consequences for peace in the region and even in the world.

Just as with every previous country that became a nuclear power, we have actually given Iran an incentive to arm itself. Ever since the United States became the first nuclear-armed country (and the only country ever to use those weapons), we have pursued a policy of nonproliferation, seeking to prevent the development of such arms by any other country. We saw ourselves at the time as the saviors and guardians of worldwide peace. As developers and custodians of this awesome weapon, we found it self-evident that no other country could be trusted to have it, since only we could be trusted to use it to make peace, not war. For the architects of the Bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evidence for this proposition: before we dropped it, the world was at war; after, the world was at peace. QED.

Leaders of other countries didn’t see it that way. By 1950, the Soviets had the Bomb. By 1960, so did Britain, France and China. Germany and Japan clearly could have done so, but as the losers of World War II, they prudently and discreetly put themselves under the American nuclear shield. In 1968, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was signed, and went into effect in 1970. At present, 189 states are signatories and thus committed to refrain from developing or spreading nuclear weapons.

However, certain countries, whose governments saw a strategic interest or need, did not adhere to the treaty, and have developed nuclear weapons: Israel (neither admitted nor denied, wink, wink), India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Western intelligence agencies appear to be convinced that Iran is developing such weapons, notwithstanding its adherence to the treaty and its assertions that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

A common element in most, if not all of these latter-day nuclear powers is a high level of paranoia among the people who set nuclear strategy: they are all seemingly convinced that enemies on every side are poised to attack, and are deterred only by nuclear weapons. Sound familiar? Sooner or later, deterrence won’t work. After all, it depends on the rationality of paranoiacs.

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Nuclear weapons are of absolutely no military utility. If there were ever a time when their use might have been defended, it would have been after September 11, 2001, but even the hawks in the Bush administration couldn’t find a target. Russia, the successor to our erstwhile strategic rival, the Soviet Union, still has the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, but they too have no plausible targets. It’s true that the Indians and Pakistanis can plausibly consider each other as targets, but if it came to an actual nuclear exchange, Pakistan would be erased from the surface of the earth, and Indians might wish that they had suffered the same fate. Nuclear weapons do not deter war because their use is truly inconceivable. They are literally useless.

Nonproliferation has not worked, whether as US policy or as treaty. The Soviets insisted on going nuclear because the US had done so. The Chinese did it because both the US and the USSR had done it. India did it because China did. Pakistan did it because India did. The British and French did it to stake their claim to great power status. The Israelis did it, I suppose, as a Samson strategy: if an overwhelming Arab or Iranian attack were to come, the Israelis would bring down the whole house. I won’t even begin to analyze the motives of the North Koreans and Iranians. The point is, with all these nervous nuclear nations out there, the risk of nuclear war is higher now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Nonproliferation hasn’t worked for a very basic reason. The United States, as the first nuclear power, never offered to disarm itself. The whole structure of the nuclear arms race is built upon the US as the first nuclear power. Remove that foundation, and the justification for other nuclear arsenals disappears. If we really want a world without nuclear weapons, we need to start at home. By beginning a process of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the United States could initiate a constructive international dynamic of reciprocal reductions leading to an end of this scourge.

But wouldn’t Iran (or North Korea) feel freer to attack their neighbors in the absence of a nuclear threat? No, because the only plausible threat is conventional warfare. If Iran were to stage a nuclear attack on Israel, for example, or North Korea on South Korea, they would face the certainty of a devastating U.S. response. But even in that instance it would make far more sense for the U.S. to stage a targeted conventional attack aimed at destroying the regime, thus avoiding the destruction the whole society (and inflicting major radiation damage on neighboring countries). Ordering the use of nuclear weapons would be the last act of the Iranian leadership. Maybe they would be too paranoid to see that. But the point is that the capacity of the U.S. to respond to such an attack would not be impaired even if we had given up nuclear weapons.

Nuclear disarmament could be part of a more comprehensive disarmament process, but it could also stand alone as something that rational national leaders could negotiate. The United States is uniquely positioned to start that process. We owe that to those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we owe it to the Indians and Pakistanis, to the Iranians and Israelis who are at risk now; we owe it to our grandchildren.

john peeler

John Peeler

Posted: MOnday, 3 September 2012