Rethinking Nuclear Nonproliferation

Last week, Iran removed the UN seals from uranium enrichment equipment at its Natanz nuclear facility and threatened to block International Atomic Energy Agency inspections if referred to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program. Iran claims its program is for peaceful nuclear energy purposes, but there are legitimate concerns that Iran may be conducting a secret nuclear weapons program, because the ability to enrich uranium is a de facto ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The possibility of a confrontation with Iran – including U.S. military action to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions – highlights the deficiencies with current nonproliferation thinking and the need to break free of the reins of conventional wisdom.

To begin, it is important to understand that Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment per se is not a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a party. Nothing in the NPT bans uranium enrichment to provide fuel for nuclear power plants. The problem is that the same technology to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants can also produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This is a loophole in the NPT that North Korea exploited to become a self-proclaimed nuclear-armed power, and it would appear that Iran is following suit.

Moreover, the NPT is a false bargain because it promises that the five original nuclear weapons states – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China – will disarm in return for all the non-nuclear powers not developing nuclear weapons. But this is wishful thinking, at best. Why should non-nuclear countries – especially those that feel threatened by the possibility of U.S. military intervention, now including preemptive attacks to forestall threats that have not yet materialized – forego pursuing a capability they don’t have in exchange for the nuclear-armed powers’ promise to give up a capability they already have? If you believe that the nuclear powers will disarm, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

But the problem goes beyond the NPT. It is also important to recognize that interventionist U.S. foreign policy – under both Democratic and Republican administrations (since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has engaged in nine major military operations) – has created a strong incentive for countries to acquire nuclear weapons as perhaps the only way to stave off possible U.S. military intervention. In the wake of the Bush administration’s decision to engage in preemptive regime change in Iraq, it is hardly surprising that Pyongyang and Tehran would conclude that they might be next on Washington’s hit list unless they could effectively deter an attack. Yet neither country could hope to match the conventional military capabilities of the world’s superpower. The most reliable deterrent – maybe the only reliable deterrent – is to have nuclear weapons. In other words, U.S. behavior may have inadvertently created a powerful incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The conundrum for nonproliferation thinking is the conventional wisdom that equates "nonproliferation" with "national security." But the belief that all proliferation is equally threatening and dangerous illustrates the problem with the arguments over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The arms control and nonproliferation community could not disagree with the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq’s possession of WMD was a threat that required a response because to disagree would have meant admitting that proliferation was an acceptable outcome. Instead, they were left to disagree about the evidence that Iraq was in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and what the appropriate response should have been.

However, the question never should have been whether Iraq had WMD or not, which presumed that if Iraq did then it was a threat. Rather, the fundamental question was: even if Iraq had WMD (however undesirable) was it a threat to the United States that could not be deterred? In other words, the imperative is national security, not nonproliferation.

The answer to this more relevant question is that there was no historical evidence of Iraq, or any other rogue state, using weapons of mass destruction against enemies capable of inflicting unacceptable retaliatory damage. Although Hussein used chemical weapons against helpless Kurdish villagers and the Iranian infantry in the 1980s, during the Gulf War in 1991 – when Hussein had vast stocks of chemical weapons – he was deterred from using them against the Coalition and Israel by credible threats of obliteration. More to the point, even if Saddam Hussein managed to build a few atomic bombs, he would have been no more able to escape the reality of credible nuclear deterrence than the Soviet Union before him, or North Korea today. The same is true for the mullahs in Tehran.

The pertinent quandary is that if deterrence works, not only is it an argument against the necessity to use military force but it is also an argument against a requirement for a successful nonproliferation regime. This is not to say that a nonproliferation mechanism is undesirable, just that it may not be necessary as an imperative of national security.

While in the general sense it might be true that fewer nuclear weapons in the world (and fewer countries with nuclear weapons) may be a good thing, such logic is not necessarily absolute. A different paradigm for analyzing proliferation would be to assess the consequences of proliferation on a case-by-case basis rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.

Unfortunately, for the arms control and nonproliferation community, anything less than absolute prevention of acquisition of nuclear weapons, technology, and materials is unacceptable. Thus, they focus on trying to induce India and Pakistan to sign on to the NPT in a "hope against experience" effort to convince those countries to give up their nuclear capabilities. Yet there is some evidence that nuclear weapons have actually had a stabilizing effect on Indian-Pakistani relations, which runs counter to nonproliferation expectations. For example, does the fact that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons prevent violence related to the Kashmir dispute from erupting into war between the two countries?

Similarly, both the Bush administration and the arms control community are focused on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program and stripping that country of its few weapons. But it may not be possible (or realistic) to put the genie back in the bottle. So instead of a vain attempt to prevent countries from keeping the nuclear weapons they already have, a more pragmatic arms control and nonproliferation approach might be to create incentives and disincentives that limit the size and scope of a country’s nuclear weapons program and arsenal so that it is not a direct threat to the United States. Although this is a less than perfect solution, U.S. security would be better served by acknowledging reality and making the best of that reality, rather than embarking on a Quixotic quest for perfection that is not likely to be obtained.

The other conventional wisdom is that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries de facto prevents the transfer of weapons to terrorists. Indeed, this was the rationale used by the President Bush to disarm Iraq, including using military force if necessary. The president argued that Hussein could give his WMD to terrorists who would then attack the United States, i.e., the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. Therefore, the only way to prevent the possibility of WMD terrorism was to rid Iraq of its WMD or its ruler who was seeking to acquire WMD, including nuclear weapons. The same argument can be made even more strongly for Iran as it has even stronger ties to terrorist groups.

Such an argument was certainly plausible, but the question was whether it was likely. The Bush administration was never able to make a convincing case. Saddam Hussein was known to support anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, but he never gave chemical or biological weapons to those groups to use against Israel, a country he hated as much as the United States. The alleged connection between the regime in Baghdad and the Ansar al-Islam group supposedly affiliated with al-Qaeda seemed more like a contradiction. Ansar al-Islam was a group of radical Islamist Iraqi Kurds seeking to establish an independent Islamic state in northern Iraq. In contrast, Hussein sought to exert more control over the independence-minded Iraqi Kurdish population by "Arabizing" predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq by transplanting loyal Sunnis and giving them positions of power and prestige. Despite such allegations, although there were known contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq over a number of years, there is no evidence of collaboration. In fact, Osama bin Laden viewed Hussein as an apostate Muslim ruler and referred to his regime as an "infidel regime."

Regardless of the Bush administration’s weak case that Iraq would transfer WMD to terrorists, the logic of its argument creates a dilemma for those who believe that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries also prevents the transfer of such weapons (or materials, or technology) to terrorists. The only way out of this corner for the arms control and nonproliferation community is a willingness to explore "failed" nonproliferation efforts as an acceptable (but undesirable) outcome, while still developing successful ways to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

What become the criteria, then, for determining whether a nuclear-armed state is also a terrorist risk? Does having known ties to terrorist groups automatically make a country an unacceptable risk? Does it matter what terrorist groups a government is linked to? Even if a particular regime is considered a state sponsor of terrorism, does that necessarily mean that the regime would provide nuclear weapons to terrorists? What are the incentives and disincentives for any country to give nuclear weapons to terrorists?

These are hard questions, and there are no easy answers. But this is no different than during the Cold War, when the wizards of Armageddon thought about the unthinkable: nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The current situation with Iran also requires thinking about the unthinkable – in this case, the possibility of a nuclear-armed fundamentalist Islamic state (which is not the same thing a radical Islamist regime, but because al-Qaeda’s radical Islamist ideology is also fundamentalist, many people don’t see any difference between the two). While seeking to prevent this possible outcome, the United States must also be prepared for its eventuality. As is the case with North Korea, the other member of the axis of evil, the United States should be more focused on ensuring that Iran will not proliferate nuclear-weapons technology should it acquire nukes.


Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.