A rational approach to preventing proliferation could avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Alarmism about nuclear proliferation is fairly common coin in the foreign policy establishment. And of late it has been boosted by the seeming efforts of Iran or its friends to answer covert assassinations, apparently by Israel, with attacks and attempted attacks of their own in India, Georgia and Thailand.
A non-hysterical approach to the Iran nuclear issue is entirely possible. It should take several considerations into account. If the rattled and insecure Iranian leadership is lying when it says it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, or if it undergoes a conversion from that position (triggered perhaps by an Israeli airstrike), it will find, like all other nuclear-armed states, that the bombs are essentially useless and a considerable waste of time, effort, money and scientific talent.
Nuclear weapons have had a tremendous influence on our agonies and obsessions since 1945, inspiring desperate rhetoric, extravagant theorising, wasteful expenditure and frenetic diplomatic posturing. However, they have been of little historic consequence. And they were not necessary to prevent a third world war or a major conflict in Europe: each leak from the archives suggests that the Soviet Union never seriously considered direct military aggression against the U.S. or Europe. That is, there was nothing to deter.
Moreover, there never seem to have been militarily compelling — or even minimally sensible — reasons to use the weapons, particularly because of an inability to identify targets that were both suitable and could not be effectively attacked using conventional munitions.
As a deterrent
Iran would most likely “use” any nuclear capacity in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige (or ego-stoking) and to deter real or perceived threats. Historical experience strongly suggests that new nuclear countries, even ones that once seemed hugely threatening, like communist China in the 1960s, are content to use their weapons for such purposes.
Indeed, as strategist (and Nobel laureate) Thomas Schelling suggests, deterrence is about the only value the weapons might have for Iran. Such devices, he points out, “would be too precious to give away or to sell” and “too precious to waste killing people” when they could make other countries “hesitant to consider military action”.
The popular notion that nuclear weapons furnish a country with the capacity to “dominate” its area has little or no historical support — in the main, nuclear threats since 1945 have either been ignored or met with countervailing opposition, not timorous acquiescence. It thus seems overwhelmingly likely that, if a nuclear Iran brandishes its weapons to intimidate others or get its way, it will find that those threatened, rather than capitulating or rushing off to build a compensating arsenal of their own, will ally with others, including conceivably Israel, to stand up to the intimidation — rather in the way an alliance of convenience coalesced to oppose Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Iran's leadership, though hostile and unpleasant in many ways, is not a gaggle of suicidal lunatics. Thus, as Schelling suggests, it is exceedingly unlikely it would give nuclear weapons to a group like Hezbollah to detonate, not least because the rational ones in charge would fear that the source would be detected, inviting devastating retaliation.
Taking on Iran
Nor is an Iranian bomb likely to trigger a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East, as many people insist. Decades of alarmist predictions about proliferation chains, cascades, dominoes, waves, avalanches, epidemics and points of no return have proven faulty. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely expected because, insofar as most leaders of most countries, even rogue ones, have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly and likely to rile the neighbours. And the nuclear diffusion that has transpired has had remarkably limited, perhaps even imperceptible, consequences. As Professor Jacques Hymans has shown, the weapons have also been exceedingly difficult to obtain for administratively dysfunctional countries like Iran.
There is also an uncomfortable truth. If Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon, the only way it can be effectively stopped is invasion and occupation, an undertaking that would make America's costly war in Iraq look like child's play. Indeed, because it can credibly threaten invaders with another and worse Iraq, Iran scarcely needs nuclear weapons to deter invasion. This fact might eventually dawn on its leaders.
Airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities might temporarily set them back, but the country's most likely response would be to launch a truly dedicated effort to obtain a bomb, as Iraq's nuclear weapons budget was increased twenty-five-fold after its facilities were bombed by Israel in 1981. Moreover, Iran might well respond by seeking to make life markedly more difficult for U.S. and Nato forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The experience with aggressive counter-proliferation policies should give pause to anyone advocating such an approach. Airstrikes can cause extensive collateral damage, and an invasion would be even more costly. And economic sanctions should only be applied with great care. Those imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, for instance, appear to have been a necessary cause of more deaths than were inflicted by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And the same human toll was exacted in the misguided anti-proliferation war against Iraq in 2003.
I have nothing against making non-proliferation a high priority. I would simply like to top it with a somewhat higher priority: avoiding militarily aggressive actions under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies, which might lead to the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
(John Mueller is professor of political science at Ohio State University. He is the author of Atomic Obsession.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012
Keywords: Iran nuclear programme