In April 2009, President Obama, in a speech in Prague, called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Since that time, overtures have been made by the EU 3 + 3 (the UK, France German, plus the US, Russia and China) to Iran, and counteroffers have been made by the Iranians. However no agreement has been reached, there are no direct negotiations, and the situation appears to be at, or rapidly approaching, an impasse. The situation in the Middle East was the subject of a recent Security Conference in Herzyliya, Israel.
What does the future hold, and what can we learn from history? First, there have been numerous crises in which nuclear weapons could have been used but were not yet their existence did not deter action. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel did not use any nuclear weapons which she most likely had by that time. During the Falklands war, Great Britain did not use them against Argentina despite the fact that the situation would have been “ideal,” i.e. isolated naval targets and no civilian casualties. It is not certain even they were even considered. The 2002 confrontation between two weapons states, India and Pakistan, passed without use, perhaps due to strong intervention by outside powers.
Many countries with the capability of producing these weapons, Germany and Japan come quickly to mind, have not done so. Instead, they are shielded behind the American nuclear umbrella, in a situation known as extended deterrence. The same was likely true for some of the Eastern European countries in the days of the Soviet Union. But not all countries believe in this concept, with Israel being the prime example of a nation unwilling to be shielded by the US umbrella. Extended deterrence can also work in disturbing ways as well. Would an Iranian bomb make clients such as Hezbollah and Hamas act with greater impunity, as they shield beneath the Iranian bomb.
Iran is a Shiite Islamic country surrounded by Sunni states. Possession of a nuclear weapon may create a certain type of security but it is far from a guarantee. North Korea is a case in which the possession of a few weapons creates a great deal of caution amongst others but also strong enmity. Japan, South Korea, and the US do not, and will not, recognise or treat North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
It is far from certain how the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf will react to a nuclear Iran. Will they insist upon a “Sunni bomb?” Will they, instead, be willing to exist under an umbrella of US extended deterrence. Already we see some signs of this with the United Arab Emirates. Since Israel was not willing to exist under such conditions it is far from certain that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt - to pick just a few - would be willing to do so. It should not be taken as a given that a nuclear Iran will cause these countries, and others, to begin the process of acquiring nuclear arms, either by the illicit purchase from a state already so armed or by using their own technical capabilities.
The recent examples of cyber warfare and attacks on web sites have given prominence to new concerns. Who has control over the use of nuclear weapons and how are commands for their use or deployment to be given. Cyber warfare raises the possibility of a paralysis of command and control. Moreover it is one thing to consider the reasonably sophisticated computer networks of highly developed countries and quite another those of developing nations.
In the face of so much uncertainty and the fact that there has been no progress in halting or even slowing the Iranian ability to enrich uranium and that the centrifuges are busily spinning, what can be done? One enticing possibility has been put forth by Professor Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland. The use of nuclear weapons, for the first time since 1945, would be so grave a violation of any possible human norm that severe action must be taken. He suggests an immediate UN Security Council resolution whereby the first-use of a nuclear weapon would remove that country’s government from the realm of recognised states and make them liable to invasion – and removal – by non-nuclear means.
There is no longer any public understanding of the devastating effects of these horrible weapons. Fortunately it is some 65 years since they were used and there are not that many people still alive to recall the devastation. But there are means by which we could show the world what is possible. There are huge natural disasters which can serve as an example. The recent earthquake in Haiti, which has claimed as many as 200,000 lives, has been estimated to have had the force equivalent to a 0.5 Megaton nuclear weapon. By utilizing the destruction caused it would be possible to show the world what the use of even one such weapon would entail. And this would highlight just the immediate destruction and not the effects of radiation and the poisoning of water and food supplies.
A nuclear exchange, unlikely between Russia and the US but not beyond imagination between India and Pakistan or Iran and Israel, is horrible beyond anyone’s imagination. It is vital that every possible action be taken to avoid any use of the most awful weapons ever created by human beings.