The 2010 midterm election was widely perceived as a referendum on the economy, taxes, and the expansion of the federal deficit as a result of the Obama administration’s expensive health care and “stimulus” spending plans. As voters focused on their own financial standing as well as that of the country, foreign policy issues struggled for attention. Nevertheless, one particular matter should not be swept under the rug.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue regimes is the ticking time bomb that, despite the current lack of interest in subjects that are not galvanizing “Tea Party” activists or defenders of President Obama’s spending policies, could dominate the news in the not-so-distant future. Few candidates discussed their stands on non-proliferation—or those of their opponents—but the question of what the United States will be prepared to do to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous governments may prove to be the most consequential decision made in Washington in the coming years.
The number of countries possessing nuclear capability has grown since the initial confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Despite the fear that nuclear weapons engendered, or perhaps because of this fear, not only were they never used, but it can also be argued that their existence ensured that disputes between the superpowers never escalated into all-out war.
But nuclear technology was not something that the great powers could monopolize. The first break in that Allied-Soviet hegemony occurred when China exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964. At the other end of the spectrum in terms of country size, the tiny state of Israel would also enter, albeit unofficially, the nuclear club. Surrounded by a Muslim and Arab world dedicated to its destruction, Israel sought to create an ambiguous deterrent (since it has never admitted to possessing nuclear devices and merely stated it would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East) that would convince its enemies to think twice before launching attacks. Like the superpowers’ possession of nukes, Israel’s secret arsenal was a stabilizing force in the region since it made war, at least of the conventional variety, less likely.
But the spread of nuclear knowledge would not be limited to these nations. A decade after China’s announcement, India tested its first nuclear device in 1974. The world’s largest democracy proved to be a responsible member of the nuclear club, leading to eventual acceptance by the United States. But India’s nuclear achievement must also be seen as the catalyst for Pakistan’s decision to create its own nuclear arsenal. Having been defeated by India in three wars, Islamabad set out to even the nuclear score in the subcontinent. Although it took nearly a quarter-century before Pakistan could announce its own successful nuclear test in 1998, the process by which an “Islamic bomb” was created was the Pandora’s box from which much of the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons would flow. For it was the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan who used his country’s push for nuclear parity with India as a cover for launching an international ring selling nuclear technology and devices. Some of his wares found their way to both North Korea and Iran. And it is these countries that must be seen as the focus of the greatest threat to international peace and stability in the 21st century.
North Korea’s nuclear program proved to be an insoluble dilemma for American strategists. A 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and the North Korean government was intended to ultimately prevent Pyongyang from possessing nuclear weapons, even as it permitted some level of nuclear development. But the North Koreans soon flouted this deal and, despite the continued efforts of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to talk the North Korean dictatorship off the nuclear ledge, the North Koreans announced their own successful nuclear test in October 2006. The idea of a neo-Stalinist dictatorship run by a family clique having its own nuclear arsenal is a profoundly frightening development. But the isolated nature of the Pyongyang government and its limited—though lethal—ambitions vis-à-vis its neighbors, as well as the presence of a worried China on its northern border, has served to ameliorate this threat—so far.
Unlike North Korea, Iran has not yet achieved nuclear capability. But the prospect of Dr. Khan’s other clients possessing such a weapon raises a completely different set of fears for the civilized world. The Islamist government in Tehran is a large nation relative to its neighbors with oil reserves at its disposal as well as a significant military. It was born amid revolutionary and anti-American fervor in the wake of the fall of the pro-Western Shah in 1979. Support for the regime is driven by religious extremism and a fear of Western democracy, which has led it to brutally repress dissent and view any challenge to its nuclear ambitions as an affront to national sovereignty.
Unlike Pakistan, Iran’s hope for its own “Islamic bomb” seems to serve a more inflammatory and dangerous purpose. Iran seeks not deterrence but dominance of the region, as Tehran challenges moderate states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt for influence in the Muslim world. As such, it regards itself as a leader of Muslim opponents of Israel, a nation that Iran’s leaders have repeatedly stated their desire to annihilate, and as a principal antagonist of the democratic West. Led by extremist leaders such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others who may be motivated by millenarian Shi’ite religious fervor, it is difficult to envision Iran treating nuclear weapons with caution. Just as dangerous is the prospect that an Iranian bomb would provide a nuclear umbrella for Tehran’s network of terrorist allies: Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.
Negotiating with Nukes
But as much as there has been a degree of international consensus that an Iranian bomb would be a terrible circumstance, years of attempts to persuade Tehran to desist have utterly failed. Under the Bush administration, preoccupied as it was with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, responsibility for Iranian diplomacy was outsourced to America’s Western European allies. But the diplomatic efforts undertaken by France and Germany, both of which had significant business relationships with Iran, flopped. Iran ignored both threats and attempts at appeasement, all the while openly bragging of its progress towards a nuclear capability, which it disingenuously continued to assert was for a peaceful purpose. President Bush left office kicking the proverbial can down the road for his successor to deal with.
President Barack Obama came into office having pledged during the 2008 campaign not to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, which he termed a “game changer” that could potentially set off a frightening arms race in the Middle East as well as present the possibility of unimagined horrors via a regional nuclear war. But he ignored his predecessor’s record on the issue and acted as if diplomacy had never been tried. What followed was a year of American attempts to “engage” Iran accompanied by a parallel campaign to persuade China and Russia, heretofore Iran’s diplomatic protectors, to join in the effort to isolate Ahmadinejad’s regime.
The engagement campaign was an abysmal failure, with Iran first ignoring the president’s outstretched hand and then reneging on a deal that might have allowed their program to continue but with a limited weapons potential. In 2010, Obama shifted his focus toward isolating Iran via United Nations sanctions that would harm Tehran’s economy. And although Washington was able to persuade both Russia and China to back sanctions on Iran, the process by which this was achieved resulted in a watering down of the penalties. As Obama’s second year in office winds down, it must be acknowledged that Iran’s program has neither been stopped nor slowed. However far away Tehran is from a nuclear announcement, there is no question that they are closer to that goal than they were in January 2009.
With Obama still unprepared to put the threat of force on the table, it is reasonable to assume that, as with Bush, Iran’s leaders do not take him seriously on this issue. But whether or not Israel is prepared to act to prevent what it not unreasonably views as the threat of another Holocaust, and whether moderate Arab nations will silently applaud such action, is still up in the air. It is also understood that Israel may not be capable of stopping Iran on its own. Only the United States has the military power to ensure that Iran never gets the bomb—but its military is stretched thin fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is led by a president who appears to be so devoted to diplomacy on the issue (even in the wake of his failures on this score) that it is hard to imagine him either authorizing an American military strike or approving one undertaken by Israel.
All of which leaves a number of unappealing possibilities. Will the United States remain so committed to a policy of weak sanctions that Iran’s nuclear success is certain? Is the president prepared to sell Americans on the idea that an Iranian bomb is not a “game changer” after all? And if Obama sees an American strike on Iran as unthinkable, how supportive will he be of an Israeli effort along these lines, especially if the resulting fighting complicates the American war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Preparing the Country
The stability of the Middle East, the existence of Israel, the continued flow of vital oil to the rest of the world and, by extension, the prosperity of the developed world as well as the hopes for American success in Iraq and Afghanistan, all hang on the answers to these questions. But with nonproliferation and the administration’s record on Iran largely ignored this fall, the hard choices facing the nation on these critical issues were not debated or even discussed. Thus, the country is unprepared for the momentous decisions that may well have to be made before the next national election in 2012.
As such, it is vital for Americans to press Congress for their views on the spread of nuclear weapons and, in particular, on Iran. They should not be satisfied with statements that express abhorrence with Iran obtaining nuclear weapons without stating exactly how this occurrence might be prevented. While diplomacy or sanctions would certainly be preferable to a military strike, the chance of such measures succeeding is virtually nonexistent. Thus, both Republicans and Democrats must be pressed to go on record as to whether they buy into the myth that a nuclear Iran can be contained like the former Soviet Union or whether they are willing to support the use of force to stop Tehran as a last resort after diplomacy has failed again.
Americans cannot pretend they haven’t been warned about the dangers of an Iranian bomb. But if they fail to make their views known about the necessity of action, they will be in no position to complain when events overtake the desire of both the voters and their elected representatives to avoid the responsibility for confronting this peril.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of COMMENTARY and a contributor to its blog at www.commentarymagazine.com.