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 Deterrance
In 1998, four years before Iran's push for nuclear power, India officially detonated an atomic bomb and, soon after, its arch rival 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 bombs.
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 danger."
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% enrichment makes uranium suitable for generating electricity; at the high end, 90% 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 Muhammad El Baradei said:
"Part of the negotiations should be providing Iran with security assurances. I hopeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. 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, Baradei 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 Books).
Copyright 2007 Dilip Hiro