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Why Iran Will Go Nuclear

by Tony Karon - 12 February 2005

The fact that eight or nine countries have nukes creates an irresistible incentive for others to join the club.

North Korea has unexpectedly declared itself a nuclear state although the fact that they have made the announcement verbally rather than through the more traditional route of actually testing a bomb leaves room for a measure of skepticism over just how nuclear they are. Still, the move signals the failure of the Bush administration's six-party talks strategy; Pyongyang is now restating its longstanding demand for one-on-one dialog with Washington, and the U.S. will likely find that South Korea, China and Russia all endorse this call for the administration to drop its aversion to talking directly to the regime of Kim Jong-Il. Hardliners in Washington are claiming vindication, arguing that the North's announcement shows that talking to the regime does nothing to deter it from the nuclear path. They may be right, although China and South Korea may be inclined to read the latest North Korean announcement as simply a new game of brinkmanship designed to push Pyongyang to the top of Washington's foreign policy concerns.

The hawks in Washington can point to the fact that the North pursued its weapons program in secret even when it was committed to a deal with the Clinton administration as evidence that Kim Jong-Il is engaged in a game of deception designed to buy time, win concessions and go nuclear anyway. The hardliners have a tougher time, however, selling their own remedy, which involves tightening the economic noose around North Korea in the hope of forcing the collapse of its regime. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld noted Thursday that "I don't think that anyone would characterize the leadership in that country as being restrained," which would suggest that if it does, in fact, have nuclear weapons and has repeatedly used blackmail and brinkmanship as instruments of foreign policy, then trying to slowly starve it to death may not the most rational course of action. And initiating a direct military confrontation remains almost unthinkable, not only because analysts estimate it could cost up to one million lives but also because the government of South Korea would be adamantly opposed.

North Korea's nuclear announcement certainly blindsided Washington, which had hoped to restart the six-party talks next month. U.S. attentions were elsewhere, most notably on stopping Iran from doing what North Korea claims to have done. Frankly, the administration's chances of stopping Iran from joining the expanding club of nuclear-armed states may not be much better than its prospects of holding back North Korea.

On her European tour this week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put forth the idea that Iran now faces a united front of the U.S. and Europe pressing for an end to its uranium enrichment activities. But Dr. Rice may be mistaking the general desire of the Europeans to mend fences with Washington, and their general dismay at the idea of Iran emerging as a nuclear state, as support for the Bush administration's approach to dealing with the problem. That would be wishful thinking, although hardly the first time the Bush administration had been guilty of such miscalculation over matters Middle Eastern. Rice's upbeat assessment requires ignoring the obvious signs that if the U.S. does pursue confrontation with Iran, it will almost certainly do so with even fewer allies than it had over Iraq.

The Europeans certainly don't want Iran to go nuclear, and France, Germany and Britain are leading a diplomatic effort to dissuade Tehran from engaging in uranium-enrichment activities that could be used to build a bomb. Their motivation is not simply because they abhor the emergence of yet another nuclear-armed state in a very unstable part of the world, but also because they fear that the consequences to global security of military action by either the U.S. or Israel to stop Tehran.

The Europeans are pursuing negotiations, but also making clear with increasing urgency that diplomacy can't work unless the U.S. joins the process. But Dr. Rice repeatedly emphasized during her tour that Washington has no intention of joining the diplomatic effort, which is openly scorned by administration hawks. Indeed, even as Rice touted diplomacy, she also gave plenty of hints that her administration prefers the option of regime-change in Iran a position that effectively undermines the European negotiation position. That's because the basis of the diplomatic effort is not a "do as we say or else" ultimatum, but rather to convince the regime in Tehran that it faces no strategic threat to its survival, and can therefore manage fine without nukes and instead enjoy the fruits of reintegration into the international community. By staying out of the process and indicating its preference for regime-change in Tehran, the Bush administration essentially dooms the negotiations to long-term failure, even if they stagger along for months or years. Diplomacy and the pursuit of regime-change simply cannot coexist in a single strategy for very long. The hawks are not unaware of this, of course, they simply believe it's naive to trust any agreement with the Iranians to refrain from doing a North Korea and advocate diplomacy largely as an exercise in building support for tougher action.

The hawks' skepticism of the effectiveness of negotiations in stopping nations going nuclear is not without foundation. In today's geo-strategic reality, there's no good reason why any nation state that has the means to attain nuclear weapons would accept a status quo that nukes them out of its hands, while leaving them in the hands of its enemies. Indeed, the strongest impulse to build nuclear weapons, in Iran, as everywhere else, comes from the fact that its key enemies are nuclear-armed and the resulting belief that a nuclear deterrent is therefore essential to Iran's national security, or at least the security of its regime. Iran's primary enemies Israel and the U.S. have nuclear capability, as does regional rival Pakistan. And the Iranian government is believed to have begun its nuclear quest in earnest during the 1980s, when the country was locked in mortal combat with Iraq and Saddam Hussein had made no secret of his own nuclear ambitions.

Tehran is simply following the strategic logic that drove the proliferation of nuclear weapons over the past half-century: The Soviet Union saw acquiring nuclear weapons as a matter of survival because the U.S. had built and used them to decisively tip the balance in a conventional conflict. France, Britain and later China acquired them because they sought strategic independence from the U.S. and the Soviets respectively. Israel built nukes as the ultimate strategic trump card in the face of the numerical strength of surrounding Arab armies; India pursued them because its prime strategic rival was not Pakistan, but nuclear-armed China; but Pakistan pursued them because its arch-enemy is nuclear-armed India.

It's hard to imagine why Tehran would accept the current nuclear status quo. (Indeed, every time it is pressed on the issue, it raises Israel's nuclear capability as a prime concern.) Still, if Iran did go nuclear, some of its non-nuclear rivals might e pushed to do the same, chief among them Saudi Arabia, whose own strategic relationship with the U.S. is in decline. Nor will it stop there. Globalization has put nuclear weapons capability in the hands of far more states, while a multi-polar world increases the incentives to build the bomb.

The original logic of the Non-Proliferation regime was not to entrench the nuclear monopoly of the original five nuclear powers; it was to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to new states as part of a wider process pointing towards global nuclear disarmament. That's not going to happen for the foreseeable future, which is why the Bush administration wants to initiate research into a new generation of bunker-busting nuclear weapons, i.e. nukes that can take out other people's nukes.

So why should it surprise us that when states outside of the nuclear club who see their enemies enjoying all the strategic benefits of nukes move to assemble their own strategic deterrent? There are exceptions, of course: In the mid-nineties South Africa became the first state in history to allow its nuclear arsenal to be destroyed under international supervision. And, after a decade of negotiating his way back into the international mainstream, Libya's Colonel Muammar Ghadafi last year renounced his nuclear ambitions and handed over the goodies to the U.S. But in the South African case, the weapons were built by the apartheid regime fearful, like Israel, of being swamped by a hostile neighborhood and they were destroyed by the same regime shortly before the first democratic government was elected in 1994. Libya? Well, let's just say that Ghadafi has never exactly been embraced as a model of rational behavior or inspired much emulation in the wider international community.

So, if or more likely when the European diplomatic efforts on Iran fail, Bush administration hawks will smile a told-you-so smile and move to the next phase. But the Europeans will likely see the failure as at least partly caused by the U.S. staying away from the table and adopting a menacing pose.

Worse, for the Bush administration, is that the Security Council isn't likely to offer the sanctions the U.S. is hoping for. For one thing, Iran has not actually been accused of nuclear-weapons activity by the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite IAEA concerns over Tehran's failure to reveal key elements of its uranium enrichment activities. Until now, U.S. efforts to have Tehran referred to the Security Council, a step that must be taken by consensus of the IAEA board of governors, have floundered. That may be one reason the Bush administration continues to actively seek the ouster of IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed El-Baradei. El-Baradei, remember, irked the U.S. by his contention, since vindicated, that Saddam Hussein did not have an active nuclear weapons program at the time the U.S. invaded.

Making the case against Iran won't be made easier by the fact that the U.S. credibility in making claims about others' weapons program suffered a body blow in Iraq. So the bar for the U.S. to prove its case will be a lot higher over Iran, and going after Dr. El-Baradei at this point will likely raise suspicions among many UN member states that Washington is trying to game the system.

Even if the U.S. did manage to win European support for a Security Council resolution holding Iran in violation of its non-proliferation obligations, there's little doubt that China now heavily invested in Iran's energy resources would veto any call for sanctions or any other punitive action. In light of the Iraq WMD debacle, imagining that the UN Security Council is likely to take up Washington's Iran case in a manner favored by the Bush administration is wishful thinking.

Either way, the failure of diplomacy would leave the Bush administration forced to choose between some form of military action and simply living with a nuclear-armed Iran. Dr. Rice was reportedly shocked to hear, at a meeting with French intellectuals in Paris, that European public opinion, and even many elected officials, may incline toward accepting a nuclear-armed Iran as inevitable.

There's no question that European governments share the U.S. opposition to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. But if the question becomes would they be willing to support a war in order to prevent it, the smart money says the U.S. would find fewer allies for a new military campaign than when it went to war in Iraq. The French foreign policy wonks with whom Rice met pointed out to her that they considered a nuclear-armed Pakistan a far greater danger than a nuclear-armed Iran a point with which she demurred. That's unsurprising, given that despite the fact that Pakistan's own nuclear program has served as the world's secret nuclear supermarket and its military regime faces a substantial domestic challenge from radical Islamists of the Qaeda stripe, the country remains a U.S. ally.

The realpolitik that forced the world to accept India and Pakistan's nuclear arrival in 1998 will see likely see new nations accepted into the club, because the options for enforcing its exclusivity are seldom palatable. As long as nations have been prone to conflict with one another, each new military technology that altered a strategic balance has compelled rivals to match it as quickly as possible. A century ago, it might have been nice to imagine that the airplane or the tank would remain the exclusive property of the U.S. and its allies. As the U.S. intelligence community's own projection of trends over the next 15 years puts it -

"A number of countries will continue to pursue their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and in some cases will enhance their capabilities. Current nuclear weapons states will continue to improve the survivability of their deterrent forces and almost certainly will improve the reliability, accuracy, and lethality of their delivery systems as well as develop capabilities to penetrate missile defenses... Countries without nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, may decide to seek them as it becomes clear that their neighbors and regional rivals already are doing so. The assistance of proliferators, including former private entrepreneurs such as the A.Q. Khan network, will reduce the time required for additional countries to develop nuclear weapons."

In other words, get used to it.

Tony Karon is a senior editor for His column on international affairs appears every Tuesday.

- Time Magazine  (12 February 2005)

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revised 18 November 2005