War Stories

North Korea and Iran Want the Bomb

Wouldn’t you, too?

Listen to Fred Kaplan discuss this topic on NPR’s Day to Day.

The remaining two axes of evil have been spinning their terrible wheels this week. The North Koreans proclaimed, at disarmament talks no less, that they will soon test a nuclear weapon. The Iranians were caught in an awkward fix, if not an outright lie, when traces of bomb-grade uranium were found on a centrifuge at a nuclear reactor that they claim to use strictly for peaceful purposes. There are ambiguities in both stories. The North Koreans also said at those talks that they would dismantle their nuclear-weapons program if the United States dropped its hostile policy and resumed economic assistance. The Iranians expressed surprise at the news about the centrifuge, explaining that they bought the equipment elsewhere and that it must have come precoated with enriched-uranium residue (dubious but not impossible, given that the source was probably Pakistan).

The world’s indignant response in both cases ignores the main questions: Why shouldn’t nations like Iran and North Korea try to build A-bombs? Isn’t building the bomb a logical policy in the post-Cold War era? Why do some nations try to go nuclear, while other nations (even those with the technical ability) do not? And what should be done to lure the nuclear-wannabes away from their desires?

The Cold War, for all its rigidities and nightmares, was a global security system. Most of the world’s nations fell into one of the two camps and, in exchange for their loyalty (whether voluntary or forced), received guarantees of protection. The “nuclear umbrella,” as it was called in the West: If the Soviet Union attacked any of America’s allies, the president pledged (or at least retained the option) to retaliate with nuclear weapons, as if the United States had been the target. A few doubted the credibility of this guarantee: Surely the Soviets would respond to that attack with one of their own—and would any American president really risk New York to avenge Paris? England and France (and, later, Israel) each built its own “deterrent force” as a result. (If anyone in the Soviet camp doubted the Kremlin’s true intentions in the event of a Western attack, they couldn’t say, much less do, much about it.) Generally, though, the system worked; very few rubbed the lamp to summon the nuclear genie.

It was inevitable (and widely noted as such at the time) that, as the Soviet Union unraveled, so too would the Cold War system: not just the bonds of domination and tyranny but also the obligations and incentives for restraint.

Yet most governments did not respond to their new freedoms or insecurities by hiring vast teams of physicists and erecting supercolliders. Why not?

Some nations refrained on moral grounds. In Germany and Japan, traces of guilt and a special awareness of latent aggression linger from World War II (though it’s a good question whether these qualms will persist through the next generation).

In other cases, governments have willfully dismantled their nuclear weapons for reasons unique to their circumstances. The pre-Mandela South African government knew apartheid was doomed and didn’t want the new leaders, who would inevitably be black, to inherit its A-bombs. The post-Soviet Ukrainian government didn’t control the ICBMs on its soil anyway—they had always been manned and maintained by Moscow—so it was no loss, and a huge political gain, to let Westerners come in and tear them apart. (During last year’s prewar showdown with Saddam Hussein, Vice President Dick Cheney was disingenuous, to say the least, in pointing to the Ukraine and South Africa as models of disarmament that Iraq should emulate. The remark underscored that Bush’s true concern was regime change, not weapons of mass destruction.)

In most cases, though, the abstaining nations simply neither crave the global reach, nor perceive a grave enough threat, to compel them to build their own bomb.

That leaves two kinds of nations—those who do possess expansive ambitions and those who do detect danger (real or imagined). Unfortunately, these two tendencies—grandeur and paranoia—often go hand in hand, with mutually exacerbating results. From the perspective of a grandiose, paranoid leader, the desire to join the league of nuclear powers makes perfect sense. The history of the late 20th century shows clearly that a mere handful of nukes form a compelling fist. In 1969, Leonid Brezhnev almost certainly would have sent Soviet troops across the Chinese border had it not been for Mao Zedong’s clenched handful. Fewer than a handful have forced India and Pakistan, on several occasions, to back away from the brink when they might have otherwise leapt in. The suspicion that North Korea might already possess a nuke or two is surely a factor deterring George W. Bush from launching a pre-emptive strike on the reactor at Yongbyon.

A leader needn’t be paranoid to covet the bomb (anymore than American, Russian, British, French, or Chinese leaders were paranoid when they built, then expanded, their nuclear arsenals). For many years, Iran feared a renewed attack from Iraq, which, at least at one point in the past 13 years, was fast on its way to acquiring A-bombs. In just the past two years, President Bush has told Iran’s leaders, in quite explicit terms, that they have good reason to fear an attack from the United States. North Korea has been sent a similar message—and, to boot, has no resources or bargaining chips other than its nuclear project. (This is not to make some silly claim of moral equivalence or, in any way, to endorse the development of a Pyongyang or Tehran A-bomb, nor to dispute that Kim Jong-il and the mullahs of Iran pose real threats—far from it.)

By the same token, if, say, Iran and North Korea do get their hands on some nukes, neighboring countries that were once satisfied to stay out of the nuclear game—most notably, Japan—would feel enormous pressure to get in, which would then have cascading effects on their neighbors (for instance, China might expand its arsenal, which might worry India, which could inflame Pakistan, and so on).

The point is that some nations—even nations led by very dangerous people—have objectively valid reasons to acquire the bomb. This does not mean the rest of the world should sagely nod and let them go ahead. But it does mean that, if the rest of the world is interested in stopping them from going nuclear, it must understand that those atomic ambitions are perfectly rational.

All this may seem ridiculously obvious. But the world’s great powers aren’t exactly behaving as if it is. The Cold War has been over for a dozen years, yet nobody—not Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, or Kofi Annan—has begun to formulate a policy on nuclear nonproliferation.

There is, clearly, no way to transform Iran and North Korea into, say, Spain and Costa Rica. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or fuzzily naive to devise a system of inducements—some combination of rewards and punishments, security guarantees and economic incentives—that might lure such nations away from atomic temptation. It’s the alternative—the supposedly “hard-headed” dismissal of such ideas as “appeasement” or “succumbing to blackmail”—that constitutes the real, and in the long-run more deadly, naiveté.