CoverStory

The nuclear chimera

It is not nuclear weapons that threaten world peace but conventional weapons and the will to use them

By William Pfaff

Why should Iran not have nuclear weapons? Israel has them. India and Pakistan have them. Europe is full of them, most of them American, tucked away by the US and NATO in inconspicuous corners in case they might be needed; some of them in locations probably forgotten. Russia and China have plenty of them.

The point of asking the question is that all these nuclear weapons are useless. They have no conceivable practical use. They are like chess kings: eminently symbolic, blockading and rendering the king null being the object of the game, but of no practical use in the action of the game.

The Iranians are conventionally accused of wanting nuclear weapons in order to attack and destroy Israel—finish off Hitler’s work, people say with a shudder. Why? They don’t hate Jews; there used to be millions of them in Iran. Those Iranians who believe their country needs nuclear weapons, whether they are in or out of government, undoubtedly do so because they fear Israel and the United States, and they are right to do so.

An Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons only for the purpose of attacking Israel would be devoid of sense. Even were the Iranians to so arm themselves, and be so deranged as to try such an attack (hundreds in the leading military and political echelons of the government deranged, and suicidal as well: a government does not carry out a nuclear attack without the practical collaboration of political, technical and military staffs and personnel at several levels; it does not happen on a president’s or supreme leader’s whim), every populated place in Iran would be incinerated within hours afterwards.

The Israelis and Americans, who nonetheless insist that this is a possible Iranian action, reply to skeptics that the Iranians are collectively a fanatical and suicidal people. Everyone knows Shi’ites are fanatical— and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the maddest of them all, having said that Israel should be expunged from the Middle East. His actually stated position was that, as the World War II allies resolved in response to the horrors of the Holocaust to gratify the Zionist demand for a Jewish national home, it should have been located in Europe where the crimes were committed, not in Palestine. This is a perfectly reasonable argument but a pointless one, since history and the religious assumptions of European Christians as well as Jews—including the largely Christian leadership of the British Empire which controlled Palestine as a League of Nations Mandated Territory—dictated a Jewish state’s location in what both religions, and Muslims as well, identify as their shared Holy Land. The ongoing interpretation of Ahmadinejad’s Israel statement as a threat and potential course of action by Iran has been propaganda.

The second stated Israeli and American fear has been that an Islamic government of Iran would give nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, or to al Qaeda jihadists, understood in the West to be suicidal fanatics. This, too, would assure that the Persian state and people, among history’s major actors since antiquity, would be attacked in retaliation and all but destroyed, since the provenance of the device creating a nuclear explosion is readily determined.

Nothing is inconceivable, although many conceivable things are impossible. Conceivably the world’s fate may be decided by suicidal madmen and their witting collaborators. In that case there is nothing to be done about it, and we must say our prayers. But serious people, even in Israel, do not waste their time making policy to deal with the inconceivable. It is conceivable that the Israeli government would decide to use Israel’s own nuclear armory to inflict lasting devastation on Iran and its people. Their arsenal could certainly do that. But what would they have achieved, other than to give other governments reason to think that Israel had become a threat to mankind and must be neutralised? And to cause pious Jews to fear the wrath of their god?

 

THE significance of nuclear weapons is primarily political and symbolic. They have no real value except within the circumstances of some great war whose principal actors intend the extermination of their enemies. This is the only time they have been used.

World War II became such a war, although Hitler’s genocidal intentions were not initially understood or found credible, because of the strategic position and military resources of Britain in 1940. British land forces had been driven out of Europe by the German offensive. Its own and its imperial and Commonwealth allies’ troops could defeat Italian forces in North Africa, and the German corps under Erwin Rommel that reinforced them, but Britain had no way to strike at Germany in Europe except through air bombardment, initially intended to be strategic, which is to say, directed only against military and industrial targets.

The initial German air attacks on Britain were meant to hit airfields, radar stations, and industry, as were the equivalent British attacks on Germany, but both air forces found they lacked the ability to bomb with the necessary precision. The Germans turned to the blitz on Coventry and London, and the British turned to city attacks and eventually to deliberate massed bombing and incendiary attacks on German cities. The latter continued throughout the war. The Germans lacked the heavy bomber force necessary to a sustained similar campaign against Britain. By the end, Germany’s cities were in ruins and a large part of the German population dispersed or made refugees. The United States, whose bombers joined the British campaign against German cities, applied the same strategy in its war against Japan, with even greater effect since Japanese housing was nearly all of wood construction. Then came the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the means to exterminate an enemy people were demonstrated.

The aftermath saw an early American ambition to establish international control of nuclear weapons. The initial legislative proposal, which eventually became the 1946 McMahon Act, placed atomic energy under civilian rather than military control in the United States and mandated liberal dissemination of information. Because of popular and Congressional fears connected with the developing Cold War, the latter provision was eliminated in the final version of the legislation. This was so severe that Britain and Canada, responsible for important pre-war nuclear research that crucially contributed to the Manhattan Project, were denied postwar roles in the continuing nuclear developments in the United States. In 1949, president Harry Truman ended full partnership with the UK and in 1950 the defection to the Soviet Union of the British scientist Klaus Fuchs and the first Soviet nuclear test were made known. This US policy decision caused shock and much bitterness in Britain, which launched its own nuclear weapons program with its first successful test in 1952 (in Australia). A British hydrogen bomb followed along with the creation of an independent British deterrent force of V-bombers.

The American decision to bar other nations from access to nuclear weapons, whenever and wherever it was possible to do so, was confirmed. Exercising to the greatest extent possible control of the nuclear weapons, even of American allies, seemed in Washington an elementary precaution. A limited measure of British-American cooperation was restored when the Kennedy administration agreed to supply weapons for a British deterrent submarine force; however, to the present day those nuclear weapons remain under ultimate American control. During the Cold War they were targeted as an element in the overall American strategic war plan.

This American policy naturally was defied by France, which refused to concede total control of Western nuclear deterrence to the US. French nuclear research had begun before World War II in continuation of the experiments with radiation that had won Marie Curie a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. Work on a French nuclear device began after the war. A French reactor “went critical” in 1948 and plutonium began to be extracted in 1949. Work was suspended for political reasons by the postwar Fourth Republic, but in 1956, after the failed French-British-Israeli Suez invasion that was blocked by the US Eisenhower administration, France secretly re-launched its own weapons program. It also began construction in Israel of the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Israeli desert, together with a reprocessing plant for extracting plutonium. These provided the basis for Israel’s present nuclear military force.

With the return to power in France of Charles de Gaulle and the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, a nuclear deterrent force (the Force de Frappe) was created in the French air force. This was followed a year later by land-based missiles (now dismantled), and missile-launching nuclear submarines in 1972. In 1980, a French neutron bomb is believed to have been secretly tested.

In 1957, the Fourth Republic had made an agreement with Konrad Adenauer’s Germany and with Italy to furnish those two countries with the means to construct nuclear weapons. When de Gaulle returned to power in France this agreement was terminated. The general had no more wish to see nuclear proliferation in Western Europe than the American government had to see nuclear military proliferation anywhere else. Nevertheless, both India and Pakistan were soon developing nuclear weapons, apparently without American knowledge. Neither country has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor have Israel or North Korea. Iran and Iraq—the two Arab states accused of developing nuclear weapons (which Iraq did not and Iran denies) did sign the treaty and permitted International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

 

IRAN’S career as a nuclear power was launched under the auspices of the Eisenhower administration’s 1957 Atoms for Peace program, which was meant to promote peaceful nuclear power. However, the tangible result of this Iranian nuclear cooperation was delayed until after the Islamic Revolution in that country, when cooperation with the US turned into conflict. (Prior to the revolution, Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration had envisaged Iran becoming the “American gendarme” in the Middle East).

The revolution resulted from Iran’s troubled political course following the effort, begun in 1951, of a reformist and nationalist prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh, to revise the prevailing terms on which the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain’s single most valuable foreign asset, exploited Iran’s oil reserves. Lengthy and unsuccessful negotiations between Iran and the Atlee government and the Truman administration led to British blockade of Iranian oil exports, and in 1953, after conservative governments had been elected in both countries (president Dwight Eisenhower in the US with John Foster Dulles as his hardline secretary of state, and Winston Churchill restored as Britain’s prime minister), Mossadegh cut the negotiations short and nationalised Iran’s oil industry.

The young Shah of Iran issued a royal decree dismissing Mossadegh and appointed a general as prime minister, provoking violent popular and anti-foreign demonstrations. This inspired great alarm in Washington, where Dulles, always disposed to see a Russian hand in foreign unrest, argued that the Communist Tudeh party risked seizing power. The frightened Shah fled Iran. British and American intelligence hastily put into action a plan that subsidised pro-Shah mass demonstrations, and prepared a political coup that restored him to power. The Shah returned to Tehran and named a military cabinet, transforming his government from a constitutional monarchy to an authoritarian one. Prime Minister Mossadegh was arrested and confined to prison until his death in 1967.

The Shah’s initial civil nuclear project was to develop a 23,000 megawatt nuclear power generating capacity that would allow Iran to greatly increase its profitable oil and gas exports. The first construction contracts were with the German Kraftwerk Union and Siemens conglomerates in 1957, with four power plants envisaged. One unit was completed and a second half-finished when the 1979 Islamic Revolution halted work. The plants were subsequently damaged by Iraqi bombing during the 1980-1990 war with Iraq, initiated by Iraq and assisted by the United States in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the radical Shi’ite government of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Shah had also contracted a project with France’s nuclear industry, which was cancelled in 1979. The Islamic government resumed work on a reactor at the abandoned German site with Russian assistance in the mid-1990s, which was meant to operate on Russian-supplied fuel. This was to have been finished and connected in May of 2012, but at this writing there has been no announcement. In June a new Russian-built plant was announced for 2014. International attention meanwhile has been directed all but totally to the experimental work widely assumed, or alleged, to be military in character (for which Iran was given a controversial rebuke by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency a year ago).

The controversy continues at this writing. Does Iran pose a threat to the existence of Israel? The answer is clearly negative; it does not now possess the military means constituting an “existential” threat. But Iranian missiles with conventional munitions could certainly cause extensive damage were they fired on Israel (as well as the missiles possessed by Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories). However there would be no doubt as to Israel’s ability to survive and retaliate.

 

DOES Israel pose a threat to the survival of Iran? A nuclear threat does exist, although probably not to Iran’s national survival—nations survive almost anything. An all-out air and missile assault on Iran with conventional munitions could destroy the Iranian national infrastructure and cripple the country for many years to come, above all if it were accompanied by an American companion attack.

The most plausible hypothesis in this respect would be an initial Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, followed by Iranian retaliation against American naval forces and US bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, and perhaps Qatar, producing in turn even larger-scale American retaliation and, conceivably (but very unlikely), invasion. The consequences of such a sequence of events for all of the states neighbouring the Persian/Arab Gulf, as well as for the United States and Israel, and Israel’s neighbours, can be imagined.

To return to the argument with which I began, the international controversy concerning Iran, Israel, and nuclear weapons is not serious. It does not deal with the real issues and interests in these countries.

First, the possible consequences of a conflict are of such scope, possibility and unpredictability that all of the actors in this affair have weighty reasons to draw back from any step likely to precipitate a nuclear crisis. Because nuclear weapons are unusable power they illustrate the paradox of proliferation. The world in which every nation has nuclear weapons in a second-strike configuration is in theory safe from nuclear war, although it is not safe from conventional attack or invasion.

Furthermore, it is obvious that war with Israel would serve no national interest of Iran. The Iranians share the general Muslim hostility to Israel (and to the United States) inspired by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and continuing appropriation of Palestinian territories in defiance of international law. But while Iranians and their government officials may deplore this situation, injustices inflicted on a Sunni people remote from Iran and possessing no claim upon the Shi’ite Iranians are not a rational—or more to the point, political or material—cause for launching a war in which Iran and its inhabitants would inevitably suffer grave human loss and lasting national damage.

Israel’s national policy since the country’s founding has held that national security lies in military domination of the Middle East. It has ignored the costs of such a stance. This requires that any Muslim state or entity that possesses or develops enough military power seriously to threaten Israel’s dominance must be neutralised, as Egypt was—thanks to Anwar Sadat’s willingness to negotiate peace—or it must, if necessary, be disarmed by war, as happened to Iraq, thanks to Israel’s American ally. The possibility of a renewed Egyptian threat has been reopened by the change of regime that followed the 2010 uprising. However American destruction of Iraq has eliminated, at least for the present, that country’s military potential.

It remains that Israeli national interest is clearly threatened by Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons. For the reasons already given, this is not because of any risk that Iran would attack Israel but because such a force would constitute a plausible deterrent to Israeli (or American) attack. Its existence would be a challenge (above all, symbolic) to Israel’s domination of the region and to American strategic freedom. Hence Israel has a national interest in destroying Iran’s presumed capacity to build nuclear weapons, or in convincing the United States to do this on Israel’s behalf, as happened in the case of Iraq. The United States has a policy interest in the elimination of any hostile military entity in the Middle East, above all a nuclear one, capable of denying the United States certain strategic options.

These in my pessimistic view are the realities of the present situation. Obviously there is a better way to go. A negotiated and just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians could transform the situation, benefiting all parties. However that would require that Israel renounce the expansive and exclusive claims and ambitions of its Zionist founders, which officially, and historically, provide Israel’s raison d’être. Is that imaginable? Is it feasible, in terms of the country’s internal politics?