February 17, 2012


A rational approach to preventing nuclear proliferation could avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths

By John Mueller

Alarmism about nuclear proliferation is fairly common coin in the foreign policy establishment. And of late it has been boosted by the seeming efforts of Iran or its friends to answer covert assassinations, apparently by Israel, with attacks and attempted attacks of their own in India, Georgia and Thailand.

A non-hysterical approach to the Iran nuclear issue is entirely possible. It should take several considerations into account. If the rattled and insecure Iranian leadership is lying when it says it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, or if it undergoes a conversion from that position (triggered perhaps by an Israeli air strike), it will find, like all other nuclear-armed states, that the bombs are essentially useless and a considerable waste of time, effort, money and scientific talent.

Nuclear weapons have had a tremendous influence on our agonies and obsessions since 1945, inspiring desperate rhetoric, extravagant theorising, wasteful expenditure and frenetic diplomatic posturing. However, they have been of little historic consequence. And they were not necessary to prevent a third world war or a major conflict in Europe: each leak from the archives suggests that the Soviet Union never seriously considered direct military aggression against the US or Europe. That is, there was nothing to deter.

Moreover, there never seem to have been militarily compelling – or even minimally sensible – reasons to use the weapons, particularly because of an inability to identify targets that were both suitable and could not be effectively attacked using conventional munitions.

Iran would most likely "use" any nuclear capacity in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige (or ego‑stoking) and to deter real or perceived threats. Historical experience strongly suggests that new nuclear countries, even ones that once seemed hugely threatening, like communist China in the 1960s, are content to use their weapons for such purposes.

Indeed, as strategist (and Nobel laureate) Thomas Schelling suggests, deterrence is about the only value the weapons might have for Iran. Such devices, he points out, "would be too precious to give away or to sell" and "too precious to waste killing people" when they could make other countries "hesitant to consider military action".

The popular notion that nuclear weapons furnish a country with the capacity to "dominate" its area has little or no historical support – in the main, nuclear threats since 1945 have either been ignored or met with countervailing opposition, not timorous acquiescence. It thus seems overwhelmingly likely that, if a nuclear Iran brandishes its weapons to intimidate others or get its way, it will find that those threatened, rather than capitulating or rushing off to build a compensating arsenal of their own, will ally with others, including conceivably Israel, to stand up to the intimidation – rather in the way an alliance of convenience coalesced to oppose Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Iran's leadership, though hostile and unpleasant in many ways, is not a gaggle of suicidal lunatics. Thus, as Schelling suggests, it is exceedingly unlikely it would give nuclear weapons to a group like Hezbollah to detonate, not least because the rational ones in charge would fear that the source would be detected, inviting devastating retaliation.

Nor is an Iranian bomb likely to trigger a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East, as many people insist. Decades of alarmist predictions about proliferation chains, cascades, dominoes, waves, avalanches, epidemics and points of no return have proven faulty. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely expected because, insofar as most leaders of most countries, even rogue ones, have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly and likely to rile the neighbours. And the nuclear diffusion that has transpired has had remarkably limited, perhaps even imperceptible, consequences. As Professor Jacques Hymans has shown, the weapons have also been exceedingly difficult to obtain for administratively dysfunctional countries like Iran.

There is also an uncomfortable truth. If Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon, the only way it can be effectively stopped is invasion and occupation, an undertaking that would make America's costly war in Iraq look like child's play. Indeed, because it can credibly threaten invaders with another and worse Iraq, Iran scarcely needs nuclear weapons to deter invasion. This fact might eventually dawn on its leaders.

Air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities might temporarily set them back, but the country's most likely response would be to launch a truly dedicated effort to obtain a bomb, as Iraq's nuclear weapons budget was increased twenty-five-fold after its facilities were bombed by Israel in 1981. Moreover, Iran might well respond by seeking to make life markedly more difficult for US and Nato forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The experience with aggressive counter-proliferation policies should give pause to anyone advocating such an approach. Air strikes can cause extensive collateral damage, and an invasion would be even more costly. And economic sanctions should only be applied with great care. Those imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, for instance, appear to have been a necessary cause of more deaths than were inflicted by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And the same human toll was exacted in the misguided anti-proliferation war against Iraq in 2003.

I have nothing against making non-proliferation a high priority. I would simply like to top it with a somewhat higher priority: avoiding militarily aggressive actions under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies, which might lead to the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands people.


Afghanistan's president expresses frustration with the country he accuses of harbouring the Taliban during a visit to Islamabad

By Saeed Shah

Karzai's language and tone flared to such an extent that the Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, intervened and called a halt to a meeting of the full delegations of the two countries, according to officials on both sides. After a break, a smaller meeting of just the top officials was held, on the first day of a two-day visit to Islamabad.

The Afghan president has long demanded that Pakistan bring the leadership of the Taliban to the negotiating table, including its chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The Afghan side's main meeting on Thursday was with the combined Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which went on for around three hours, with the Pakistani prime minister, foreign minister, army chief and head of the intelligence service all present.

At one point, apparently directing his remarks to Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, Karzai asked: "Would you be willing to stop girls studying in schools and university in Pakistan?" The Taliban, when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, stopped the education of girls and banned women from working.

According to one insider, Karzai also bluntly demanded that Pakistan produce the Taliban to negotiate with him during his visit to the country. The source said that the Pakistani side was shocked by the Afghan leader's aggression.

The nascent peace process, which offers the only hope for an end to the decade-long Afghan conflict, depends crucially on Afghanistan and Pakistan being able to co-operate. Islamabad denies that the Taliban leadership and Mullah Omar is on its soil, but Kabul and the west believe that they have sanctuary there, giving Islamabad decisive leverage over any negotiations.

Karzai is understood to deeply resent what he feels is his government's marginalisation in the peace dialogue, which he sees as being controlled by the US or Pakistan, despite both countries repeatedly saying they want an "Afghan-led" process.

US-backed efforts in recent months to open an office for the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar, to kickstart talks, was an initiative that Kabul felt excluded from.

Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan is only just recovering from accusations last year that the ISI was behind the assassination of Kabul's peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Ahead of the Karzai visit, the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, Umer Daudzai, a key adviser to the president, told a Pakistani newspaper: "President Hamid Karzai will expect Pakistan to facilitate contacts and dialogue with Taliban."

Pakistan says that it will aid Kabul's peace efforts but has never spelt out what it is capable of delivering. Conversely, Pakistan says that it is unclear what Karzai is demanding of it.

"We told them (the Afghan side) that you need to clarify what it is that you want," said Khar, speaking to a small group of foreign press following the official meetings. "We need to understand each other much better."
"We will not block any process that works towards reconciliation."

Khar described the discussions with the Afghan delegation as "hard" and "serious" but declined to go into any details. "We don't have Mullah Omar to bring," she said. "That's the crazy perception about Pakistan. It's