Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Turkey (through NATO warranties and through the special arrangements that were made during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961), Israel, Saudi-Arabia (which country is, in all probability, co-proprietor of the Pakistani bomb) and Pakistan. On top of all that, the US fleet in the Gulf is stuffed with nuclear arms.
The USA and its Western allies, having tolerated, if not supported, an
- Israeli development of a considerable nuclear capacity since the sixties,
- it's transfer to Apartheid South Africa in the seventies,
- the Indian bomb,
- the Pakistani bomb, and
- just some weeks ago, tacitly accepted the North-Korean capacity of building nuclear weapons, -
Owning the Bomb works two ways: it generates arrogance and stabilisation of rogue regimes AND it learns them, paradoxically, to behave...
As we saw above, Iran is far from being the first country to introduce non-great power owned nuclear arms in the region. And it is not the first one, either, to threaten Israel with a nuclear response, if it uses its nuclear capacity against it or its allies. In 1973, the Soviet Union, when Israel considered nuking Egypt (Cairo), put its nuclear missiles in the Caucasus on alert and let that be known. The appeasing mechanism of mutual destruction risk, main element of the Cold War Years did its work then, too: No nuclear arms were used and a truce, later peace, was concluded between Israel and Egypt.
If it were true, that the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the ending of a bipolar world, would have made any proliferation (further proliferation) of nuclear capacities, suddenly extremely dangerous, why then, have the US and their nuclear armed allies not profited from the window of opportunity that existed during the Nineties, to implement the treaties and arrangements that existed at that time, to impose nuclear disarmament on the world, beginning with the existing nuclear powers? It was not impossible, as has been shown by the successful, UN controlled, nuclear disarmament of post-apartheid South Africa, the Ukraine and possibly other post-Soviet countries. (Libya is another case: it is essentially a security deal between the existing regime and the Americans, piloted by the UK, bypassing French, Italian and Russian ambitions in that region.)
The only answer to that, I am able to imagine, is, that nuclear armament has become, under certain conditions, a vector of stability and security, and, even, a condition for peace.
A Chirac "lapse" (?)
Some weeks ago, I found a confirmation of that, at first view, paradoxical proposition. It was here, in At Home In Europe (Week 5: Chirac on Iran, etc.), that I mentioned the "gaffe" of French president Chirac. The old fox, talking with American and British press, said that a limited number of Iranian nuclear arms, would do not much harm, but that it would, on the contrary force Iran into a more responsible policy. The day after, he made 'amende honorable' and slipped hastily back into the ranks of the Western diplomatic orchestra that puts (with some dissonances) maximum pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program. But it had been said. It is an expression of European uneasiness with the US brinkmanship in the Near East. Maybe, it was not a "gaffe" at all, but a voluntary statement of difference, intended to stay alive during one day only, for a small nuclear power like France cannot allow itself to appear dissociated from mainstream "international community" diplomatic opinion.
Which, if I am right, would draw attention another confirmation of the chiraquian proposition, i.e.: that even an established nuclear power like France, can only tell the naked truth about nuclear policy in a way, that the Germans would call "klammheimlich".
Before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the same rules apply?
And, considering the question from the experiences out of the Cold War era: Why should not a more complex and layered system of guaranteed mutual destruction, as it has come up after the Cold War, work out in the same way as the bipolar one has done from 1945 to 1990?
Apparently, it does!
- We mentioned the Israeli-Egyptian peace of 1979.
- We could also mention the consequences of the nearly contemporaneous accession of India and Pakistan to nuclear armament: Both countries are working out serious deals now on their eternal differences (Kashmir), have already a series of smaller détente measures in place for traffic and commerce, and are working out a major strategic deal about a gas and oil pipeline from Iran to India, running through Pakistan. Some years ago, this was unthinkable.
- Between Turkey and Israel, two potential foes, it is about a certainty, that (secret) nuclear deals grease the harmonious military and economic (and strategic: water!) relations that exist between them.
- We could continue: Nixon's travel to China (1972), Russian-Chinese peace after having warred over the Amour region, etc.
It is absolutely not my personal preference for the world, this nuclear mutual deterrent system, but it works. Undeniably. I am even nearly convinced, that, if Saddam Hussein really had possessed the nuclear capacities that the US and the UK ascribed to him, the actual invasion of that country would not have taken place. But about Iraq, later.
Mr. Chirac, probably, spoke out of his own experience as leader of a minor nuclear power, when he mentioned the appeasing effects the possession of this kind of armament by a given country, has on its behaviour in international policy.
Daring to think the logics of multi-layered proliferation
Anyhow, having missed the opportunity in the beginning of the nineties, I see no way to halt a further proliferation of nuclear armament to a number of countries. We have to live with that, and dare to think of how it works and how to deal with that.
That is how we arrive at North Korea. Part of the famous "axis of evil" (Bush, State of the Union, 2002). Like Libya, the North-Korean regime intends to make a deal with the US, in order to guarantee its security and the continuation of its despicable system. Nuclear armament is the only asset it sees, to force the US into such a deal. That worked more or less fine during the Clinton era. A deal, acceptable to South Korea, Japan and China, was in the works. With the coming of George W. Bush, all that changed radically. Why?
I see two reasons for that.
1. The Star Wars Illusion in 2001
The first has to do with star wars, the idea (illusion?) that the US could escape the constraints put upon a 'normal' nuclear power, protecting themselves against nuclear attack with an interception shield (missiles that kill incoming warheads at sufficient distance from the US (mainland). In a deal with the former Soviet Union, the development of this kind of systems had been forbidden at the end of the Reagan era. But Bush revived this effort, and could do so, as the Soviet Union did no more exist, and Russia was not interested at that time, to keep up the deal (got probably something in return for abandoning its opposition). Installation of that "shield", would (will?) indeed allow the president of the US to use nuclear arms, without the possibility of retaliation.
- (At least, not on the US mainland - The risk for allies located elsewhere, would substantially grow: A nuked Iran, not being able to reach the US, could, for instance, retaliate in stead in Israel, like Saddam Hussein symbolically did in 1991 with his Scuds. The adventurous British, Dutch, Polish, Danish, etc. policies like we have seen them in Iraq, could even endanger the whole European Union, in such a case, the American shield being unable to protect them, even if they have missiles in Lithuania and Poland. In the last case, a retaliation on Europe becomes even more likely!)
In retrospective, Bush acted in January 2002, as if he had already such a shield ready for use. This was to become one of his major errors: He did not intimidate Iran and North Korea. On the contrary: North Korea broke the Clinton-deal and rushed to make its own weapons. It was only in 2002, that Iran seriously started to create the conditions for producing nuclear armament of his own. Other countries may also have accelerated their efforts to become nuclear powers because of this new US policy.
CONCLUSION: The first reason for the US abandoning the use of balancing the nuclear terror of mutual destruction between regional nuclear powers, was, if I am right, the illusion of being (soon) protected against (nuclear) retaliation, abandoning at the same time its allies to greater risks of becoming victims of that. The US would go it alone. What they did. Ask the NATO allies who offered a broad coalition after 9/11, and were harshly rebutted.
2. Underestimating China and other not-so-second-rate nuclear powers
The second reason is to be found in China. A first warning came even before 9/11. An American spy plane was forced to land on Chinese soil (the island of Hainan, facing the Vietnamese coast). All its installations were practically intact. First efforts to intimidate the Chinese at returning plane and crew, proved useless. Bush had to accept the Chinese conditions and to acknowledge, that Chinese technological progress, backed by a nuclear capacity, was something to reckon with. But not all consequences of that were thought out in Washington. Especially concerning North Korea. Apparently nobody in Washington got the idea, that North Korean nuclear armament possibly was not as much directed against the USA as against their big Chinese neighbour. So, during six years, the US continued to do the 'dirty work' of protecting China against an independence-loving neighbour and helping its ambitions for regional domination, menacing North Korea, isolating and starving it.
Very recently, the State Department announced a sudden turnabout in the relations with an -in the mean time nuclearily armed- North Korea. Everything is going to be smooth. (If Mr. Cheney will not ultimately have his way.) A possible reason for this may be the successful interception operation China executed recently of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Shit! The US, if they will ever have their shield, they will not be the only ones to have it. The Chinese too... Which means, that it is of still more importance to the US than before, to dispose of a - be it a small one - nuclear power on China's doorstep! (North-) Korean warheads will be able to reach Beijing (at some hundreds of kilometers from the Jalu River), where American intercontinental missiles will fail.
CONCLUSION: The second explanation for the unreasonable Bush politics on local nuclear balances might be their underestimation of the capacities of other nuclear powers. This seems to have been repaired in the North-Korean case.
Will such a turnabout also occur in the Iranian question? Difficult to say.
There are reasons enough for it. A nuclear Iran would help to reign in exaggerated Russian ambitions in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. It would feel free of the risk of Israeli operations like the 1981 one on the nuclear reactor in Baghdad, and thus become more open to the necessary Middle East overall peace deal as proposed by the Arab countries. To the east of Iran, in Afghanistan, hidden (or uncontrolled) Pakistani help to Sunni extremists suppressing the large Shiite minority in that country, would be discouraged, and, more in general, one of the main aims of NATO intervention in that country (curbing Pakistan-supported talibanwise tribal criminality) would come nearer, without having to loose another war against local insurgents.
Against it? Yes: Iran would control the Straits of Hormuz completely. A danger to oil supply? I think that this capacity does not alter much to the existing situation. The interest of Iran with ongoing oil export is much bigger than it could gain by blocking half of Saudi-, all of Kuwaiti-, 60% of its own- and 70% of Iraqi oil exports. And, yes, the execrable Mullahs' regime would stabilise itself somewhat more. In the beginning. But as much as the external enemies will decline in number and in risk, the strong democratic and liberal tendency among the Iranian people will have more chances to gain the upper hand against the theocracy.
The only real victim of an Iranian accession to nuclear armament, would be: IRAQ.
The centuries-old rivalry between Arabs, Kurds and Persians would get unbalanced in favour of the last ones. Only twenty years ago, Iraq, under Saddam Hussein (with American help, it is true), was a virtual victor over Iran in the horrible war both countries fought then against each other. The balance of power between the two countries would become nonexistent. That balance is one of the pivotal givens of regional stability. Bush' father still understood that well, when he decided in 1991, to keep Iraq alive, within its historical borders, taking advice from the Saudis. Son has tried to do it his way, with the consequences we see at this moment. Even without nuclear arms, Iran is more and more setting its law in Baghdad. With nuclear arms, this tendency will only be stronger.
The only solution to this, is a very ironical one: Let the Americans help the Iraqis to build a limited nuclear capacity of their own, thus doing the work, Saddam Hussein was prevented to do, and what, not having succeeded, but nevertheless accused of, was reason for murdering him.
It would be a monumental good-bye present by the US to suffering Iraq! (And it would not cost any more American life there...)
But, theoretical as my reasoning may be, and, however much I wish all nuclear armament to disappear from the earth, I believe that, geopolitically, given the unstoppable proliferation, my idea is sound. History goes from one unimaginable irony to another. It is unpredictable.
Which should not stop us thinking.
(This text is the third version of a commentary I published in German to a blogpost by BigBerta on Iran and the war that prepares itself against it [in DE] on February 25, 2007. In spite of what commonly happens, the text was not lost in the subsequent translations and rearrangements: The second German version in In Europa Zu Hause (2.25.07) is more balanced than the first, while the French version in L'Europe Chez Soi and in Toto Le Psycho (cross posted) of the same date, is better still. This English version here, of February 27 (also to be published in Legal Alien in New York), pleases me most. A Dutch version (upcoming), in In Europa Thuis) will, hopefully, crown this unusual excursion of mine into nuclear geopolitics.)