Here's the strange thing: Since 2001, our media
has been filled with terrifying nuclear headlines. The Iraqi bomb (you remember
clouds" about to rise over American cities), the North Korean bomb, and
the Iranian bomb have been almost obsessively in the news. Of course, the Iraqi
bomb turned out to be embarrassingly nonexistent; experts still consider the
Iranian bomb years away (if it happens); and the North Korean bomb, while quite
real, remains a less than impressive weapon, based on a less
than spectacular nuclear test in October 2006.
And yet these are the nuclear weapons that have taken all our attention. How
many of you have ever heard of Complex 2030 or know that, as William Hartung
and Frida Berrigan pointed
out recently, the Bush administration is, on average, putting more money
into our nuclear arsenal (over $6 billion this year) than went into it in the
Cold War era? Or that, if all goes according to administration projections,
this figure should hit $7.4 billion a year by 2012? And Complex
2030 – aiming, as the name implies, at a thoroughly updated, upgraded American
arsenal 23 years from now – involves producing, among many other things, the
Reliable Replacement Warhead, our first new warhead in two decades. (The Energy
selected its design.) In addition, the Bush administration has worked hard
to break down the barrier between nuclear and conventional weapons, absorbing
nuclear weapons into its plans for its new Global
Strike force, supposedly able to hit any target on the planet "with a few
hours' notice," and repeatedly leaking the news that it might consider using
option" against Iran's nuclear facilities.
As Dilip Hiro, Middle Eastern expert and author most recently of Blood
of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources, makes
clear, there are not two nuclear worlds – that of the nuclear "rogues" and that
of the "nuclear club"; there is only one. Our nuclear world and theirs are intimately
linked by an ever more volatile version of the old Cold War doctrine of deterrence.
The more we invest in, and maintain, a vast nuclear arsenal, the more we slot
those weapons into our strategic and tactical planning, the more such weapons
will proliferate elsewhere. The Bush administration came into office ready to
crush nuclear proliferators. Instead, when its history is written, it will undoubtedly
be seen as a nuclear proliferation machine, threatening to bring its own nightmare
scenario – such weaponry in the hands of a terrorist band for whom "deterrence"
would have no meaning whatsoever – ever closer to reality. Tom
Nuclear Weapons Programs Are About Regime Survival
The Iranian bomb in a MAD world
by Dilip Hiro
For countries – small, middling, or great – acquiring
nuclear weapons is all about the most basic requirement: the survival of the
regime or nation. Joining the "nuclear club" has proved an effective strategy
for survival. The possession of city-busting, potentially planet-ending weaponry
threatens to bring about a MAD – the Cold War acronym for "mutually assured
destruction" – world. While the "madness" of this strategy is apparent, a rarely
mentioned aspect of today's geopolitics is that acquiring nuclear arms has proven
a logical step for a regime to take when its survival is at stake.
The United States and the Soviet Union, the superpowers of the Cold
War, stacked up nuclear weapons by the thousands as "deterrents," well aware
that the use of even a tiny fraction of them would annihilate the planet many
times over. The doctrine worked, maintaining a precarious peace until the
Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
When Communist China acquired an atom bomb in 1964, it joined the
four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with veto power
– the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France – which possessed
nuclear arms, thus gaining an entry to the "nuclear club."
The club's monopoly was broken by a minor power, Israel, in 1967 – stealthily,
because its leaders decided not to test the bomb they had built. Even so, the
Central Intelligence Agency got wind of it. What did then-President Lyndon Johnson's
administration do about it? Nothing. And what about the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog agency charged with administering the
1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? It was empowered to act, but only
in cases where a UN member had signed on to the treaty. Israel did not.
In June 1981, when the UN Security Council's resolution 487 directed
Israel to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards anyway, Israel
simply ignored it. President Ronald Reagan's White House maintained a thunderous
silence on the matter.
Compare that with the Bush administration's present stance in the case of Iran.
Unlike Israel, Tehran initialed the Non-Proliferation Treaty early on – and
that treaty allows a signatory non-nuclear power to enrich uranium for civilian
purposes. By not informing the IAEA when it started to do so in 2002, however,
Tehran failed to meet its treaty obligations. That "original sin," combined
with the Bush administration's strong animus toward a hostile regional power,
has in its trail brought UN sanctions against Tehran, with Washington acting
as the prime mover.
The Lure of Deterrence
In 1998, four years before Iran's push for nuclear power, India officially
detonated an atomic bomb and, soon after, its archrival Pakistan followed suit.
Like Israel, neither of them had signed on to the NPT. India exploded a "nuclear
device" in 1974, claiming it was for "peaceful purposes." U.S. sanctions followed
but did not impede Delhi's progress in this field.
India had embarked on this path after acquiring a bloody nose in
its 1962 border war with China over disputed territories in the Himalayan
region. Following its defeat in a conventional war, its leaders concluded
that only possession of atomic weapons would deter Beijing from invading again.
By so doing, they underlined a growing belief in the deterrent power of nuclear
arms – a route by which militarily inferior countries could hope to deter
their superior rivals or enemies.
Pakistan, engaged since 1947 in a bitter struggle with India over
the status of the disputed province of Kashmir, was a case in point. Well
aware of their country's inferiority to India in population and economic development,
Pakistan's leaders knew that it would be no match in conventional warfare.
The only way to achieve parity with their larger, more powerful neighbor was
by acquiring nuclear weapons.
So they started a clandestine nuclear-arms program in the late 1970s, reaching
their goal a decade later. They waited, however, to test their first bomb until
after India had officially admitted to doing so in May 1998. A year later, fighting
between Indian and Pakistani troops in the Kargil region of Indian-administered
Kashmir did not escalate into an all-out war because both sides were nuclear-armed,
with their leaders seemingly prepared to use their arsenals in extremis.
The episode, frightening as it was, reassured Pakistani officials that their
country was now secure from being overpowered by India.
In the mid-1950s, the same reasoning had led Israeli leaders to
pursue the nuclear path. Uncertain about how long they could maintain their
edge over the combined forces of their Arab neighbors in conventional weaponry
and the quality of their troops, they concluded that an effective deterrent
for a beleaguered country was the atomic bomb.
Indeed, during the early days of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when the Israelis
were caught off-guard and invading Arab armies made striking gains, the government
ordered its entire arsenal, then 25 atomic bombs, mounted on specially adapted
bombers. Those bombers never took off, in part, because the swift airlifting
of military hardware and ammunition from the U.S. soon helped turn the tide
in Israel's favor. In short, Israeli leaders equipped their military with atomic
arms to ensure the survival of the state of Israel. Such a process, once started,
never ceases. By now, Israel reportedly has an arsenal of at least 200 nuclear
More recently, North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il has acted in a similar fashion.
In January 2002, he noted with alarm the way his country was included in an
"Axis of Evil" – along with Iraq and Iran – by George W. Bush in his State of
the Union Address. "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute
an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," the president said.
"By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing
Bush had already reversed the Clinton administration's policy of
engagement (launched in conjunction with the South Korean government) on the
issue of the North Korean nuclear program and had overseen the virtual termination
of the 1994 agreement to supply North Korea with two light-water nuclear reactors
at the cost of $4.6 billion in return for a nuclear freeze. North Korea retaliated
by expelling IAEA inspectors and withdrawing from the nuclear NPT in 2003
– the year the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq and overthrew
Saddam Hussein's regime, claiming it had an ongoing nuclear-weapons program
that endangered the United States. (It didn't.)
Kim Jong-Il then accelerated his country's nuclear program, testing
a device in October 2006. By so doing, he strengthened his hand to ensure
the survival of his regime. Thus did another minor state in search of survival
insurance join the nuclear club.
Iran Plays the Nuclear Card
With Saddam's regime destroyed and North Korea armed and dangerous,
Iran was the member of that "axis" left exposed to the prospect of regime
change. Partly to avoid Saddam's fate, Iranian leaders signed the IAEA's Additional
Protocol in October 2003, giving the watchdog body authority to conduct constant
on-site inspections. A series of reports by the agency followed.
In essence what these said was: While the IAEA inspectors had not
found evidence proving that Iran was pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, they
could not give it a clean bill of health either because Iran had not answered
all questions satisfactorily. In the words of an IAEA official in Vienna,
"The facts don't support an innocent or guilty verdict at this point."
The starting point in the nuclear-fuel cycle is the enrichment of uranium,
allowed by the NPT. A low figure of 5-percent enrichment makes uranium suitable
for generating electricity; at the high end, 90 percent is needed to produce
a nuclear weapon. The same machine – a centrifuge – yields results at both ends
of the spectrum.
From the Iranian leaders' viewpoint, surrendering their right to enrich uranium,
as demanded by the Bush administration and its allies, means giving up the path
to a nuclear weapon in the future. Yet, the history of the past half
century indicates that the only effective way to deter Washington from overthrowing
their regime is by developing – or, at least, threatening to develop – nuclear
weaponry. Little wonder that they consider giving up the right to enrich uranium
tantamount to giving up the right to protect their regime. (Anyone even suggesting
that the U.S. give up this right would be laughed off the premises. Indeed,
the Bush administration continues to update and upgrade its vast nuclear arsenal,
attempting, for instance, to develop bunker-busting atomic weapons for possible
future use against Iran's nuclear facilities.)
If the U.S. were to give Iran cast-iron guarantees of nonaggression as well
as of noninterference in its domestic affairs – just as North Korea, armed with
atomic bombs, is demanding – that would undoubtedly reassure Iran's leaders
and form a real basis for resolving the problem of that country's nuclear activities.
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2005, IAEA chief Mohamed
"Part of the negotiations should be providing Iran with security assurances.
I hope … that the United States at a certain point will become more engaged.
We look at the United States to do the heavy lifting in the area of security."
Now, ElBaradei is once more offering pragmatic advice. He has proposed that
the U.S. and its allies should consider allowing Iran limited enrichment rights
within its own boundaries. He argues that, since the Iranians have already successfully
enriched uranium, the Security Council's demand that it stop doing so has become
redundant. Instead, the world body should focus on seeing that Iran conducts
its enrichment activities under IAEA supervision and that, unlike North Korea,
it does not withdraw from the nuclear NPT.
As it is, U.S. credibility in Tehran is low. On the eve of the January 1981
release of the hostages taken at the U.S. embassy in November 1979, the U.S.
agreed in the Algiers Accord not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs. In
December 1995, however, it began violating that agreement when, following the
passage of a directive by Congress sanctioning $18 million for a covert action
program against Iran, the Clinton White House announced that the sum would be
spent inter alia to cultivate new enemies of the Islamic regime.
Since then that annual sum has risen to $75 million and the Bush White House
has launched a series of covert operations to undermine the Iranian regime,
dispatched aircraft-carrier strike forces through the Straits of Hormuz in classic
gunboat-diplomacy fashion, and had its vice president issue a series of warnings
to Iran from the deck of the USS John C. Stennis, floating barely 150
miles off the Iranian coast.
The Iranian response, despite public denials, has been to play the
single card that history has stamped "effective" since 1949 – raising the
specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. It is a classic act of self-defense guaranteed
to spread nuclear arms to other countries in a MAD world where Catch-22 is
the nuclear rule of the day.
Dilip Hiro is the author of many books on the Middle East, including The
Iranian Labyrinth (Nation Books). His latest book is Blood
of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation
Copyright 2007 Dilip Hiro