In Denial On
Nuclear Proliferation

By Terrell E. Arnold

With growing stridence, the United States is making a high profile effort to persuade Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program. Both State Undersecretary John Boulton and Vice President Dick Cheney, the chief US spokesman on this issue, give the highest priority to halting Iranian nuclear activities, and US threats of what happens to Iran if it does not cease and desist are hardly veiled. Just how does a layman know what is going on here, and why? The combination of deception to protect military options, deceit to keep the public from knowing what is happening, and a Bush/neo-con habit of telling anything but the way it is, the picture we get is to say the least frightening, but it is also badly distorted.
There is great confusion, at least in the public domain, on exactly what Iran is doing, and Iran, for obvious reasons, is unlikely to tell very much of what it knows. But the main distortion in the picture is the behavior of the United States itself. While publicly devoted to curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Syria and North Korea, the US is totally silent on Israel's large nuclear arsenal and soft-spoken at most on likely programs of countries such as Taiwan. Meanwhile, the United States openly continues to research, design and build new generations of nuclear weapons.
Redefining the battlefield
More scary than weapons design and manufacture itself, however, the United States appears engaged in a creeping redefinition of conventional warfare. Since the beginning of Gulf War I, the US has deposited several thousand tons of nuclear trash through the use of depleted uranium weapons on both Iraqi and Kosovo landscapes. Long before that, both the United States and the former Soviet Union had developed battlefield nuclear weapons, e.g., artillery shells, as well as small, tactical nukes for air drop. Where the Russians are going on their activities is not clear, but the United States is setting the worst possible example of nuclear proliferation while aggressively attempting to prevent the birth of any new nuclear states.
What is the goal?
The true subject of US behavior does not appear to be nuclear nonproliferation. If it were, the US would be pounding tables everywhere to eliminate nuclear weapons no matter who has or may have them. However, all the while pushing to rid Iraq of nonexistent nuclear weapons, and pressing North Korea and Iran to cease and desist from uranium refining programs that can lead to weapons, the US is seen, especially in the Middle East, as merely trying to keep for itself and Israel a regional nuclear monopoly. As Middle Easterners and many others see it, the name of the game is not nonproliferation but retention of nuclear advantage.
The troublesome facts
To a layman, there are several facets of this problem that are quite worrisome. On the one hand, the United States and other nuclear club members (Britain, France, China, and Russia) are not showing any real signs of getting rid of their weapons, while the United States itself seems launched on a major modernization program. Doubtless other club members are not standing still. The US program and other likely reactions to it obviously will broaden the range of nuclear weapons uses and presents to the world an undeniable picture of proliferation, not control. The result is that, no matter what it says, any real nonproliferation leadership of the United States is lacking, a genuine non-proliferation spirit is simply missing, and in that atmosphere the persistence of nuclear weapons on the planet appears assured, along with the have-not country perception of their enduring, indeed proliferating, desirability as an attribute of national power.
To make matters worse, any approach to nonproliferation is highly selective. No real effort is being made to either curb or eliminate Israeli weapons, or for that matter the weapons of India and Pakistan. Maybe it would be foolish, even perilous to try. But the approach looks to the rest of the world like an aggressive, even arrogant, attempt to maintain nuclear exclusiveness, to preserve and limit nuclear power because it provides the ultimate weapon for dominating other societies.
All non-nuclear powers have to struggle with a fundamental national security decision: Can they trust the nuclear powers not to use the bargaining weight of nuclear weapons against them? The Middle East answer to that question is no! Depleted uranium has been widely used in Iraq, and other devices reportedly were used in the destruction of Fallujah. Meanwhile mainstream media report that the United States and Israel are both looking for bunker busters powerful enough to disrupt Iranian and, by inference, any other deeply buried and would-be nuclear program. Weapons of that power are likely to be at least tactical nukes.
What is the truth?
Current US leaders may be driven by a realistic appraisal that it is no longer possible to put the genii back in the bottle; that the only real option is to control the size, shape, motives, and applications of the genii. That appraisal would commit the world to a lasting condition of nuclear haves and have nots, while decisions about who is who would be maintained by nuclear blackmail. That appraisal is a sad commentary on our ability to control a major global evil. It is also the doorway to a frightful self-fulfilling prophecy in which the world, as we know it, will either eventually destroy itself, or become bound in an iron-fisted matrix of a few nuclear powers dominating a world of vassal states.
The role of "dirty bombs"
Creeping nuclearization of conventional warfare is, right now, America's future. The gateway weapons are "dirty bombs". We hear much about them as so-called radiological weapons that may be the first nuclear entry of terrorists. But the United States, as noted above, has used dirty bombs for more than a decade, using depleted uranium weapons widely on the battlefields of Iraq and Kosovo. Depleted uranium is incorporated into armor piercing ammunition and other projectiles, because it provides greater mass, meaning a more destructive edge that armor makers so far have not overcome. The unavoidable side effect is radiation contamination of both friend and foe.
In the competition between arms and armor that has gone on for millennia, the current battle is being fought with the earth itself. Governments seeking to protect their programs, devices, plans, and key people, now bury them ever deeper beneath the ground. The challenge is how to penetrate those bunkers, and the word is that Iran has dug in deeply in many different locations.
The outlook
So the outlook is not ideal. An ideal perspective for non-nuclear powers would be that of a nuclear club and outriders all diligently seeking to reduce and eliminate their weapons. That would represent a benign environment, largely if not completely free of threat. But the present environment is aggressively threatening. Whether or not they intended the world to know it, the United States and Israel are now actively thinking about destroying large parts of Iran to prevent that country from going nuclear. They are looking for weapons powerful enough/massive enough to penetrate far enough to eliminate deeply buried operating sites. Thus, as implied in Vice President Cheney's statement, Iran is a de-facto victim of nuclear blackmail. North Korea also will be if it persists in its nuclear ambitions, and the only real deterrent may be likely Chinese reactions to an attack on North Korea.
Destabilizing equations
These equations represent globally destabilizing situations that help proliferation as well as terrorism to flourish. Because they contribute to uncertainties that unbalance the outlooks of many societies, they add to the incentives to dissidents, opposition groups, and active terrorist organizations to take advantage of the situations. Lacking nuclear tools, the groups motivated by such situations will use conventional devices. The 9-11 attacks ought to have shown us convincingly how effective conventional devices can be.
The perverse nature of the present nuclear policies is that they preserve a nuclear standoff among club members while stimulating the rest of the family of nations to use every device and subterfuge available to become a club member. The materials unfortunately are both available and profitable to sell. The atmosphere for real nonproliferation is thus totally contaminated.
At the same time, nuclear weapons appear to deter only nuclear weapons. Conventional devices are available to the least significant of users. Thanks to the proliferation of Semtex and C4, virtually anybody anywhere can get powerful explosives, and the Iraq landscape is increasingly destroyed by them. If those explosives are not to be found, fertilizer and fuel are available. The principal deterrent to such weapons is not other weapons, but rather some way to keep people from becoming angry and frustrated enough to use them. The Iraqi spectacle says we are not even close to that discovery.
The slippery slope
Facing us is the slippery slope. Having crossed the boundary between nuclear and conventional war, there seems no turning back. Rather, the prospect is that governments who might have felt "we really don't want to do this" will shift to "we can't afford not to do this." In that frame of mind, the conventions of war will slowly drift toward unbounded use of nuclear devices. The struggle to keep new nuclear powers from emerging will become more acute. Nonproliferation as now pursued will only encourage proliferation.
The global evil we now face cannot be turned away without a concerted effort by people who know this landscape well and are dedicated to putting the genii back into the bottle. America had that potential once, and America must regain it, first by curbing its own ambition. The notion that the leaders of nonproliferation can also be the leading proliferators is a denial that will destroy us all.
The author is a writer and speaker on global issues and a regular Columnist on He was trained as a teacher but spent most of his professional career as an officer of the US Foreign Service. He has an AB from Stanford, a Master's and a General Secondary Teaching Credential from San Jose State University. He is a graduate of the National War College, and he served as Chairman of the National War College Department of International Studies. He will welcome comments at



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