The Munich nuclear-abolition panel took place just 24 hours before Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ordered his scientists to forge ahead with uranium enrichment. Faced with yet another round of Iranian brinkmanship, you can understand why Western leaders might prefer to talk about a world without nuclear weapons. By making the issue bigger, more long-term and more theoretical, they can almost make it seem to go away.
But when it comes to containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the existing American arsenal simply isn’t part of the problem. And if Iran does acquire the bomb, our nuclear deterrent will quickly become an important part of the solution.
Ross is right that talk of abolishing nuclear arms is unrealistic, and he is right that the size or existence of our nuclear arsenal has no bearing on whether or not other states will pursue their own. That said, focusing on Obama’s purely rhetorical commitment to disarmament leads us away from the central flaw in nonproliferation efforts. This is simply that they are transparently, absurdly one-sided. Regimes that wish to acquire nuclear weapons have no incentives to remain within the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so it is no surprise that all of the new members of the nuclear weapons club either withdrew from the treaty or never joined it in the first place. Regimes that have ratified the NPT discover that they cannot even pursue a nuclear program that is completely within their rights guaranteed by the treaty without drawing constant international attention and interference. What is most absurd about this situation is that it is only because of Iran’s adherence to the NPT that other goverments have any ability to demand monitoring or oversight of its nuclear program, but even when Iran remains more or less within the limits set down by the NPT it is treated far worse than the states that have already engaged in nuclear proliferation on a large scale.
Before North Korea withdrew from the NPT, there was a clear opposition between “rogue states” that adhered to the nonproliferation accord and U.S.-allied, new nuclear states that did not. Of course, what makes the former into “rogue states” is that they are not our allies. As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, “rogue states” are no more and sometimes less “rogue” in their adherence to international legal norms on proliferation than India, Pakistan and Israel. If the “rogues” were our allies, their nuclear arsenals would not only scarcely bother us, but we would also actively defend their right to have these arsenals. This is one reason why I find it hard to take seriously worries about an arms race in the Near East or East Asia, when most of the potential competitors are U.S. allies. Given this arrangement, it is not surprising that “rogue states” see nonproliferation agreements to be as meaningless as our government does. What is remarkable is that Iran even bothers pretending to adhere to the NPT, even though enforcement of the nonproliferation regime is stacked entirely in favor of the U.S. and our allies.
As for Iran’s recently announced intention to produce 20% enriched uranium, which it probably cannot even do at present*, we should stop to consider whether this really counts as “brinksmanship.” Iran’s government publicly announced this decision, and it proceeded to inform the IAEA. In doing so, it is fulfilling its obligations under the NPT, and so has every legal right to proceed with this modest enrichment. When Iran’s Foreign Minister said late last week that Tehran was willing to reconsider previously proposed uranium swaps, his statement was largely met with derision. Little wonder that Ahmadinejad announced soon thereafter that they would be producing the 20% enriched uranium themselves.
To review, Iranian brinksmanship in the last week consists of offering to accept the uranium swap deal that several Western governments put forward, and after this offer was immediately shot down as a delaying tactic the Iranians decided to press ahead with a level of enrichment that is completely acceptable under the terms of an international treaty. This would be the same treaty to which several of our nuclear-armed allies do not and will never belong. On top of this, Tehran informed the relevant international agency of its decision. Yes, this is truly terrifying brinksmanship.
Of course, that’s part of the problem. There is a constant need to exaggerate threats from small and medium-sized states’ nuclear programs. These programs do not threaten us, and they do not even do much to threaten our allies, who are, as Ross reminds us, under the protection of our nuclear arsenal and could probably quickly develop their own arsenals if necessary. When they are done by the “wrong” states, the “rogues,” basically legitimate actions are viewed as threats and “brinkmanship.” Containable, manageable, regional problems are transformed overnight in intolerable threats to the entire planet. For 15 years or so after the end of the Cold War, the “international community” went along with this, but in recent years, as new centers of power have started emerging in Asia and Latin America, the “international community” is much less deferential to Western governments on this point, and even among Western governments there is much less agreement than there might have once been on such matters.
Ross has missed the most important point in all of this, which is that Obama has called for a world without nuclear weapons, but as a matter of policy has done everything he can to reinforce the double standard I am describing. His Iran engagement policy, such as it is, was always designed to lay the foundation for future punitive measures, because Obama’s nonproliferation efforts are quite conventionally aimed at “rogue states.” It is important to recognize which parts of his speeches have some practical relevance, and which are flourishes thrown in to satisfy targeted audiences.
This is why I keep insisting that we pay attention to the ideas Obama chooses to put into action. Continuing with the Indian nuclear deal was the right decision as far as U.S.-Indian relations are concerned, and reaffirming Washington’s support for Israel’s arsenal was always going to happen regardless of what Obama said in Prague. These were not bad decisions in themselves, but they would be ridiculous things to do if one actually believes that nuclear weapons should be abolished. They are also blatantly hypocritical, so long as our Iran policy dictates that Iran cannot be trusted even to produce lower enriched uranium while Pakistan can be trusted with an arsenal of scores of nuclear warheads.
* As the article in the Post mentions, it is an open question whether Iran has the technical capacity to enrich uranium to 20%. Somehow, declaring the intention to produce something that it has no technical means to produce constitutes “blackmail,” or so France’s Foreign Minister says. Obviously, if Iran cannot even manage 20% enriched uranium now, it is not going to manage to produce weapons-grade material anytime soon. This just drives home how irrational Western fears of Iran’s nuclear program are.