I hope that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani does not turn out to a wolf in sheeps clothing. If he is for real, I hope he can prevail over the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader, though the job title is probably described that way for a reason. While keeping this hope in mind, it is still useful to understand the nature of the nuclear game being played and what could be at stake. And good news, bad news helps to explain the issue.
By F. Charles Parker IV
Special to The Star
The good news is that it is extremely unlikely that either Iran or North Korea will ever deliver a nuclear weapon against an adversary. The very bad news is that they dont have to deliver a strike to achieve their strategic goals, and regional and global stability will suffer as a result.
The nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea pose a much greater threat to nonproliferation and in turn to global stability than the potential increase of two to the number of nations in the nuclear club. It is the combination of these nuclear ambitions with the Obama administrations emphasis of the nuclear zero goal of complete disarmament that increases the pressure toward proliferation exponentially.
The Obama administration came into office expressing support for the basic bargain of the Nonproliferation Treaty: countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can have access to peaceful nuclear energy.
But there is a more complicated nonproliferation story with regard to the role of the U.S. Simply put, many nations have elected not to have nuclear weapons because the U.S. does have them the so-called nuclear umbrella.
However, when compared with any previous administration, this administration has increased emphasis on the goal of complete nuclear disarmament and simultaneously has appeared inclined to constrain unilaterally U.S. nuclear capabilities.
As a result, nations that have been protected for many years by the U.S. nuclear umbrella are questioning the viability of long-term deterrence. Some serious and well-connected observers have noted that though these concerns are being expressed behind the scenes for now, the fact that they are being expressed at all is troublesome.
The administrations nuclear zero efforts unfortunately coincide with the progress of Iranian and North Korean efforts to gain a credible ability to deliver nuclear weapons. Iran has been moving ahead to upgrade its uranium enrichment program and has researched nuclear triggers while North Korea, having already conducted successful nuclear tests, is engaged in extensive open and covert efforts to develop delivery systems. Irans new moderate president is not the real power in the country, and it is unlikely that Iran will cease its nuclear ambitions.
While the charm offensive by the new Iranian president is interesting, Iran continues to enrich uranium. The U.S. has long expressed grave concerns regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons to these nations.
But lets get real. Iran knows that even if it created a fledgling nuclear weapons capability, it could not begin to match the U.S. Actually, Iranian officials in the past have cited the proportional difference in strength between a newly nuclear Iran and others as an argument that would make it folly for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. And, despite his odd behavior, Kim Jong Un is aware of the same situation. So, what are they after? Unfortunately, neither Iran nor North Korea needs to be acquire the capability to threaten the U.S. directly to achieve their strategic objectives relating to nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons, hopefully, have little military use except for deterrence. For Iran and North Korea deterrence comes from the French theory of proportional deterrence developed during the Cold War. In this theory a potential attacker such as the U.S. must believe that targets in its own country that would be destroyed in retaliation would be more valuable to it than the benefit of destroying Iran or North Korea. If the price of the total destruction of either Iran or North Korea were a U.S. city or Guam, that price would be too high.
If either country, or both, were able to create the perception that such credible capability exists or could be deployed in a very short period of time, the political leverage that results from having deliverable nuclear weapons will have been achieved. (When you think about it, a perception of Iran as radical and of Kim Jong Un as somewhat crazy could help in selling proportional deterrence.)
But Iran and North Korea are long way from the U.S. and neither Iran nor North Korea have missiles with sufficient range to strike the U.S. proper, though Guam could be at risk. Unfortunately, neither country needs that capability to exercise the coercive political leverage that they each seek.
Non-nuclear NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, and Australia are some examples of nations who choose not to have nuclear weapons because the U.S. has such weapons. For there to be confidence in the nuclear umbrella the U.S. must treat threats to Ankara, Berlin, Brisbane, Brussels, Riyadh, Seoul and Tokyo as seriously as threats to Guam, Honolulu, Anchorage, Seattle and New York. If the U.S. does not, all bets are off, and the likely result would be many nations choosing to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
Against the backdrop of the Obama administrations nuclear zeroemphasis, the U.S. commitment to its nuclear umbrella is in question.
Europe and Saudi Arabia are at a much closer range to Iran than the U.S. while the same can be said about Seoul and Tokyo with regard to North Korea. Iran is known to be developing a missile with a range that covers much of Europe. Iran could continue its public charm offensive while allowing intelligence agencies to discover that Iran was very close to being able to deploy a deliverable weapon, but still truthfully, at least literally, denying that they had nuclear weapons.
This would still make them players in the deterrence game. North Korea has tested a missile that flew over Japan to impact in the Pacific. This was more than a violation of Japanese airspace it was a clear message to Japan: you are in range.
With specter of a new and credible threat and the perception of the U.S. commitment eroding, some nations may choose to develop their own nuclear capabilities, and this could end up like a snowball rolling downhill in fresh snow.
Can diplomatic and economic tools arrest the nuclear programs of Iran and/or North Korea? The jury is still out. If the threat from Iran and North Korea becomes increasingly credible the administration will have to temper its nuclear zero efforts with assurances that the nuclear umbrella remains solid and accompany those assurances with a commitment of resources to modernize and maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
If proliferation becomes a stampede, this will be a far more dangerous world.
F. Charles Parker IV, of Belgium, retired in 1996 from the U.S. Army as a colonel and retired again from NATOs international staff in 2012 as the head of arms control coordination for the alliance. He previously lived in in this area while working at Fort Leavenworth.