The U.S. and five other world powers – Russia, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, known collectively as the P5+1 for the permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany – hope to soon conclude an agreement with Iran in order to address concerns over its nuclear program. With this agreement near (assuming the U.S. Congress doesn’t torpedo the deal with unhelpful interventions), and the every five years Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon in UN parlance) set to convene at the UN in New York City at the end of April, it seems a good time to ask questions about the nuclear weapons policies of many countries, but three stand out at this time – Iran, Israel and the United States.
Iran has no nuclear weapons. None. The International Atomic Energy Agency certifies this through its intrusive on-site inspections within Iran. Also, U.S. and Israeli intelligence agree not only that Iran isn’t developing them, it has not even made a decision it wants to pursue development or acquisition of nuclear weapons. While skeptics in the region and internationally abound, Iran’s leaders have consistently stated they do not want nuclear weapons, that nukes are incompatible with Islam and that its nuclear program is exclusively for energy and medical purposes. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, issued a fatwa or religious edict against nuclear weapons. Iran, along with Egypt, was one of the first proponents of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East, which would ban not just nuclear but also chemical and biological weapons in the region. Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, and thus is legally bound not to acquire nukes, and has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — the same is true of Israel and the U.S. regarding the CTBT.
Israel has nuclear weapons, somewhere between 80 and 400 according to various estimates, thanks to the technological and material assistance of France and other western states going back to the 1960s. Noted Israeli statesmen Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres were among the foremost architects of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel first developed its arsenal as an independent deterrent against the Soviet Union.
Israel conducted one “secret” (unacknowledged) nuclear test in 1979 in a remote area of the Indian Ocean in conjunction with the apartheid regime of South Africa, which helped both countries develop the bomb. Israel abducted and jailed whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in 1986, held him in solitary confinement for 11 of his 18 years in prison, and has arrested and harassed him and limited his freedom consistently since his release from prison in 2004. All of this was for the “crime” of revealing the worst-kept secret in the world, the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons.
Officially, Israel doesn’t admit to having nuclear arms, but as fans of the epic film Dr. Strangelove know, a doomsday machine has no deterrent value if one’s adversaries are ignorant you possess it. The United States, Israel’s benefactor and protector in the international community, has gone along with the Israeli “strategic ambiguity” charade for decades, though that may be changing, as the Obama Administration recently declassified and released a 1980s intelligence report acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Israel claims it will not be “the first to introduce nuclear weapons” into the region, whatever in the world they think that means. It has not signed the NPT (if if did, would it have to do so as a nuclear weapons state? Or declare it was going to disarm?), and it has opposed convening a conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. Such a conference was supposed to have convened in 2012, but despite the efforts of the convener, the Foreign Minister of Finland, it has yet to occur, blocked mostly by Israel and the United States. The Middle East WMD-Free conference was part of the plan of action adopted at the last NPT RevCon in 2010, and many countries are very dissatisfied it hasn’t convened.
And now for an assessment of the United States’ nuclear weapons policies. First off, we are still the only country to have dropped nukes on another country, with the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings this August 6th and 9th. No apology nor reparations appear forthcoming to the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) as victors of wars seldom engage in such behavior.
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The U.S. conducted over 1,000 nuclear weapons test explosions, including over 200 atmospheric, underwater and space tests. Since 1992, the U.S. has not conducted any nuclear weapons test explosions, but it continues to experiment on nuclear weapons through other means, including “subcritical” tests where explosions occur, just not reaching the nuclear chain reaction state of “criticality.” Computer simulations are also utilized, as are x-rays and other diagnostic measures to ensure our nukes are ready to provide the big bang if called upon.
While the U.S. has reduced its nuclear arsenal from the absurd Cold War zenith, or nadir, of over 31,000 nukes, we still maintain over 7,000 total warheads. The U.S. and other nuclear weapons states that signed the NPT in 1968 (it came into force two years later) have steadfastly stiffed the treaty’s Article VI requirement “… to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
As a matter of fact, despite the modest mutual reductions in deployed, strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons agreed by the U.S. and Russia in the New START treaty in 2010, the U.S. is going in the wrong direction regarding Article VI, planning to spend up to $350 billion over the next decade, and up to a trillion dollars over thirty years, to “modernize” our entire nuclear weapons complex, soup to nuts. Predictably, all other nuclear states have followed suit and announced their own “modernization” plans.
This situation is so egregious that the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the site of some of the worst U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s, is suing the United States and other nuclear powers for failing to live up to their Article VI obligations.
To be clear, I don’t want Iran, or any other country, to have nuclear weapons, and this analysis was not merely an exercise in hoisting Israel and the U.S. on their own nuclear petards. The very real problem is the U.S., Israel and other nuclear weapons states (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, North Korea, India and Pakistan) have no credibility to lecture Iran or anyone else on nuclear abstinence from their perch atop a bar stool. May the (probable) nuclear agreement with Iran pave the way for outlawing all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, and may the NPT Review Conference, convening April 27 to May 22 at the UN, manifest a serious global commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament.