Last week the North Korean government (officially, the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, a misuse of the word “democratic” if ever there was one), threatened a massive nuclear strike if the United States and South Korea carried out their annual “war games” in international waters. This set of war games is being conducted to demonstrate that both South Korea and the U.S. maintain considerable, well-coordinated military strength in the region, and that the action of North Korea, in sinking a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was intolerable and that it would not be permitted to pass unnoticed.
This somewhat more muscular response follows another feckless resolution from the United Nations, which condemned the attack on the ship but not the attacker. Why the fear of offending this bankrupt nation that cannot feed its own people, all of whom live in a virtual prison camp? The answer is obvious; – it is estimated that North Korea has a nuclear arsenal of up to 10 nuclear bombs They also have a missile delivery system, and so the world must wait with bated breath to see what the stroke-ridden dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, known to his people as Dear Leader, will do in response to the war games.
We bring up North Korea to emphasize the outsize influence a rogue state can have if it possesses nuclear weapon capability. The immediate relevance relates to Iran’s nuclear program on which there appears to be a consensus that weapons grade plutonium is being developed, and that a bomb will be manufactured shortly thereafter. Whether the world is months or years away from Iran’s demonstration of its nuclear capability, we do not know. Recently, CIA Director, Leon E. Panetta, stated that Iran already has material for two atomic bombs. As we know, one nuclear bomb going off could spoil your whole day.
President Obama has spent a little more than a year reaching out to the Iranian regime to no avail. No serious negotiations commenced. Although the Iranians deny that their nuclear program is for other than peaceful uses, it will not permit international inspectors to verify that claim.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a report this spring on Iran’s nuclear program, suggested that Tehran has produced 2400 kilograms of low enriched uranium, which is apparently enough to build two atomic weapons after the material is further enriched. Iran has made clear its intention to further enrich its uranium, and, tellingly, has agreed to ship, for storage, only 1200 kilograms (or half) of its stockpile to Brazil and Turkey under the much heralded fig-leaf pact it entered into with those two nations last May. Accordingly, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States recently imposed further economic sanctions on Iran in hopes that this set of sanctions will convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear efforts. We think that is very unlikely.
The Iranian regime is motivated by a radical ideology, a desire to be the leading power in its neighborhood, and what they obviously see as the need to develop “an Islamic bomb.” They, of course, insist that their nuclear development program is intended only for peaceful purposes (why else would this religion of peace be running thousands of advanced centrifuges around the clock at recently discovered secret facilities?). Thus, we are faced with a stark choice: (i) do we take military action to stop the development by Iran of nuclear weapons or, (ii) having failed to stop them from becoming a nuclear power do we simply try to manage the consequences? Our readers will recall that Mr. Obama as a presidential candidate, referred to an Iranian nuclear bomb as “a game changer.” Does that not suggest that the Western world needs to take strong and effective action to prevent the “game” from “changing”… to its detriment?
There is some precedent for taking military action. In October 1962, the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba. Obviously, during the cold war the U.S. and the USSR were the world’s only superpowers, and both were armed to the nuclear teeth. A confrontation with the Soviets threatened a nuclear exchange in which our very survival was at stake. Many people counseled President Kennedy that mutual deterrence on which both the U.S. and USSR had relied to prevent either one from attacking the other (so‑called “mutual assured destruction”) would still be an effective policy even if Soviet missiles were 90 miles from our shore. Mr. Kennedy was not of that view. In a speech to the nation, he announced what amounted to a blockade of Cuba in which every ship heading to Cuba would be stopped and searched. After extremely tense days in Washington and around the globe, there was a denouement. The Soviets agreed not to place missiles in Cuba and in exchange, the U.S. pledged not to invade that island nation. A number of years later, we learned that the U.S. also agreed not to keep nuclear‑tipped missiles in Turkey.
Other potential threats also have been met with a show of force. In 1982, Israel attacked and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq. And shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Libyan leader, Moummar Qhaddafi, announced to the world that his nation was abandoning its nuclear program. It appears quite likely that Mr. Qhaddafi feared severe military consequences if he continued with the development of his nascent nuclear program. On September 6, 2007 in what remains a mysterious and bizarre action, Israel bombed a site in Syria where the Israelis claimed a nuclear facility was being built. Western sources claimed that North Korea had shipped nuclear materials to Syria. Neither Israel nor Syria, oddly enough, has ever confirmed this military strike.
What we have in common here, except for Cuba, are efforts by Islamic states to develop what they often refer to as an Islamic bomb. Pakistani scientist, A. Q. Khan, who might well be the greatest criminal of all time, has aided them in that effort. In exchange for substantial compensation, he has illegally trafficked in nuclear technology.
The presence of enriched uranium in the hands of unreliable, undemocratic, despotic nation states threatens the entire world. The Islamic terrorists who sent fanatics to blow up the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people, would have no compunction about using a nuclear bomb in some future attack. So far, we have been lucky. Numerous additional efforts at large scale terrorist attacks have been avoided by good intelligence and insofar as we know nuclear materials are not yet in the hands of terrorists. But it would take only one failure of intelligence for a nuclear-armed terrorist group to slip through our defenses. No intelligence is foolproof.
So let’s return to Iran and presume that the Iranians will not stand down from their nuclear quest as a result of economic sanctions. With the United States engaged in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, can we undertake yet another major military action? Would the world, including our allies, support us? Is it the obligation of the United States to keep the world safe from nuclear war? Do we expect to outsource to Israel the responsibility for taking military action against Iran, whose lunatic leader has repeated, over and over, that Israel should be wiped off the map? Will the American people countenance yet another military adventure by the United States?
Unfortunately, the answer to all of those questions might well be that the United States should not take unilateral military action, and that instead we should plan to manage the threat of an Iranian nuclear arsenal through diplomatic means once that arsenal becomes a reality. We fear that it cannot be managed and that the development of the bomb by Iran will only lead to more and more proliferation, both in the Middle East and in our own hemisphere. Just imagine Hugo Chavez with a nuclear bomb in his back pocket. If diplomacy failed before Iran got the bomb, can we realistically believe it will work once they are a true nuclear power?
Perhaps now is the time for President Kennedy’s approach: a full naval blockade of Iran. Agreed, it would be an act of war, but perhaps it is the most bloodless act of war that we might have in our arsenal to prevent the cataclysmic event that Iran’s nuclear capability would foreshadow.
No atomic bombs have been exploded in anger since the bombing of Nagasaki (a demi bomb by today’s standards), in which approximately 35,000 died in one day (another 35,000 in the months that followed) ending World War II. Perhaps, the nuclear restraint in the years since the end of World War II has been the result of nuclear weaponry being in the hands of relatively stable governments and generally rational leadership (with the exception of Pakistan), but we now must face the reality that rogue and failed states, together with neighborhood bullies, are likely to possess nuclear weaponry. We cannot continue to rely on luck or the ineptitude of would-be mass murderers to prevent the catastrophe of a nuclear device being set off either on our soil or any other place in the world.
By Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter