The Growing Dilemma Of
Curbing Nuclear Weapons

By Terrell E. Arnold

Last week three European Union powers, Britain, France, and Germany, succeeded in stopping an apparent head-on collision between the United States and Iran over the latter's suspected nuclear weapons development program. Iran, unwilling to declare publicly that it has no interest in nuclear weapons--which would surely be a falsehood--even agreed to surprise inspections to avert the crisis. European Union intervention in the building US/Israeli confrontation with Iran avoids, at least for the time being, any challenge to Israel's nuclear dominance of the Middle East, and that, more than any abstract interest in nuclear non-proliferation, is what the crisis was about, but it would be foolhardy to assume this is the end of the story.
With US help Israel has enjoyed a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East since its development of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Israel developed its nuclear weapons in a self-serving effort to preempt any interference by regional powers with its program of territorial expansion. Israeli leadership understood from the beginning that nuclear weapons are a great equalizer between powers who have such weapons, but these weapons are a show-stopper if one country has a monopoly. Thus, with its exclusive regional nuclear capability in hand, Israel has proceeded to do whatever it chose to do in Palestine to further Israeli interests.
Israel's program to inhabit the West Bank and Gaza is far more obvious now than it ever was before. Heavy handed Israel Defense Force (IDF) operations in those territories, willful destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes and businesses, and targeted assassination of alleged Palestinian extremists all underscore the long term Israeli effort to expel the Palestinians and to gain territory while no one in the region is capable of fighting back. But a regional challenge to Israel's nuclear monopoly was and remains inevitable. The notion that no one will find the way effectively to fight back is to say the least naïve, and the regional pressure to find ways to counter Israel's power is likely to grow.
The problem with nuclear weapons development attempts in the Middle East is that they present the nuclear non-proliferation issues in the most crass possible terms. Regional countries that are caught in this process have an actual nuclear powered enemy, Israel. In their context, the issue is not about weapons proliferation. The issue is about power, or more specifically about how to challenge a nuclear power whose manifest ambitions are threatening. Abstract arguments about the evils of nuclear weapons are simply not compelling for countries in a situation where the persistent threat is from a country that owns nuclear weapons and does not hesitate to blackmail them with those weapons.
Thus, putting aside arguments about non-proliferation, a practical problem of preventing power equalization with Israel provokes US-led efforts to avoid acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt or any Middle East regional power other than Israel. In Asia the limitation of challenges to present nuclear powers basically requires confining nuclear capabilities to China. That country no doubt will cooperate with non-proliferation efforts that have promise for preserving its regional nuclear monopoly.
The realities of felt needs for power or urges to match the capabilities of a perceived enemy are major clouds on the global non-proliferation horizon, but they are not the only complications. In the present world energy environment, the major powers cannot refuse to permit many poor countries to acquire nuclear power as a way of alleviating their energy scarcities and costs. The fact that nuclear power systems are a way station on the path to nuclear weapons is unavoidable. Over time this > fact represents more, not less, potential for nuclear weapons proliferation, because the dual utilities of skills and technical capabilities are virtually impossible to separate. So far Israel, India and Pakistan have crept in under this umbrella. North Korea is either working on it or already there. As the Iran case illustrates, enriched uranium is needed to fuel reactors used to generate electricity. This fuel is expensive, however, and the urge to produce it at home is reasonable, but the enrichment of uranium by Iran or others arouses suspicion that a country has gone beyond nuclear energy programs toward producing weapons grade uranium and weapons production. Certainly uranium enrichment is a potential foot in the forbidden door, and much can be hidden. If anything has been shown by the Iraqi WMD fiasco it is that detecting real weapons programs is hardly a cake-walk.
In the meantime, the actual significance of nuclear weapons distribution worldwide is truly deceptive. On the one hand, the statistics show that only eight of the world's 192 nation states now possess nuclear weapons. Five of those (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) are in the original club under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Three (Israel, India and Pakistan) are outside the club, having more or less surreptitiously acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. Eight countries out of a total of 192 UN members look pretty good for nonproliferation until it is recognized that those eight nuclear powers contain approximately half of the world's people. In effect, in population terms the world is about equally divided between nuclear and non-nuclear powers.
It is part of a perverse calculus that the largest nuclear power (China) is headed toward 1.3 billion people, while the smallest (Israel) contains roughly 5 million Jews and fears being swallowed by a more rapidly growing Palestinian population. The wide difference in population aside, while the statistics are speculative to say the least, these two countries may nonetheless be close to parity in developed nuclear capabilities. Thus putting aside delivery systems or intent, these two countries in nuclear weapons terms represent about an equal threat to the rest of the world community. Of course, the United States and Russia are off this threat map altogether because their weapon stockpiles are so gross in number. Whereas Chinese and Israeli weapons, if used, represent potential mayhem, US and Russian weapons still represent potential oblivion.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world in ending World War II. The brutal destructive power of only multi-kiloton weapons on those cities, and later development of megaton weapons by the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China, imbued nuclear nonproliferation with a vitality that unfortunately has faded slowly. Had the nuclear club stayed at the original five, perhaps non-proliferation could have been made to work, but Israel, India and Pakistan blew off that lid. These three countries showed that size, wealth, power, or location were ultimately not as powerful a determinant of who became a nuclear power as stealth and determination.
The enormous potential appeal of nuclear weapons to the other 184 nations of the UN family is the very capacity of these weapons to overcome tremendous difference in population, wealth and military prowess. When present these weapons can level the playing field with a vengeance, and their bargaining utility depends only on the will and the power card playing skills of the owner. When present only on one side, there is generally no contest if the holder of the weapons is at all assertive.
This asymmetry is the driving power disparity of the Middle East. With invasion by the United States, the development of nuclear weapons by Iraq > has been deferred if not derailed, but pressures throughout the region to equalize power with Israel have by no means been diminished. Perhaps with > the intervention of the European Union via Britain, France and Germany the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred. It would be gross error, however, to assume that Iran or other powers of the region would ever be comfortable with an Israeli nuclear monopoly. They do not trust Israel to recognize or protect their interests, and Israel does nothing to engender such trust.
The anomaly in this situation is essentially a UN and nuclear club imposed double standard that insists only certain powers can have nuclear weapons legally, while not challenging effectively, if at all, the illegal weapons programs and stockpiles of Israel, India and Pakistan. Those programs in the Middle East and South Asia overshadow the concept of non-proliferation, because they demonstrate the power utility of weapons possession while showing that the best efforts of the nuclear powers and the UN do not prevent acquisition of nuclear status if the would be newcomer is determined and deceitful enough.
Loss of non-proliferation momentum is a predictable product of shifts in US policy during the George W. Bush administration. The invasion of Iraq, one-sided support for Israel, and a threatening posture of the United States toward other regional countries, notably Syria and Iran have destroyed any moral high ground the US may have had in promoting nuclear non-proliferation. The blatant drives of the neo-conservatives around the President have made it clear that the aim is power, and a specific goal is protecting Israel. Moreover, the United States has given up any moral leadership it possessed on non-proliferation by using banned nuclear materials, including depleted uranium, against the people of Iraq, and by more or less openly pursuing development of new tactical nuclear weapons. These Bush team actions and postures deliver a clear message to others that the game is power, and non-proliferation is a way to avoid sharing or diminishing power, not the broad-based effort it should be to make the world a safer place.
This situation poses a true dilemma for the international community. There is no question in anybody's mind that the possession of nuclear weapons by even the smallest of nation states fundamentally alters all relationships. This is not driven by the fine points of power and wealth but by the gross capacity to destroy. Confronting a nuclear power that refuses to give up its weapons is a delicate piece of work, but containment and ultimate rebottling of the nuclear genii is not likely until countries agree to give up their weapons.
The fact that half of the world's people are in some ill-defined sense protected by nuclear weapons, and their power appears enhanced by them, is an unfortunate model for the non-nuclear powers. Unless that model can be taken away by the present nuclear powers giving up their weapons the only way further proliferation can be averted is through rigorous enforcement of a double standard. But the effort to enforce this standard is likely to assure friction on this subject throughout the international system, because the power equalizing potential of such weapons will continue to make them the world's most attractive nuisance. In this context it appears safe to say that Iran's interests and those of several other countries in acquiring such weapons are at best only deferred.
In the Middle East the non-proliferation ground is tainted by real power disparities and the overbearing use of its nuclear advantage, as well as its ties to the United States by Israel. While the effort to acquire nuclear capabilities is not confined to the Middle East, the urges to do so are most visible and probably strongest in that region. The notion that non-proliferation arguments will carry any weight in the situation is truly vain. Unless the dynamics of power within the region can be made more > balanced, nationalistic and survival instincts will drive nations repeatedly toward means to achieve equality. A merely repressive effort to forestall > those moves will be an endless source of instability and conflict, as well as a growing source of anti-American sentiment and action toward the United States.
In this situation the best uses of American power and influence would be to turn the entire non-proliferation task over to the United Nations and financially as well as spiritually empower the UN to do this job. At the same time, the United States must stop development of new nuclear weapons and move back toward serious work in the whole club on nuclear arms reduction. To borrow from Abe Lincoln, it is unrealistic to think that the world can achieve true stability while one half openly possesses nuclear weapons and the other half strives by stealth and deception to acquire them.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at



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