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Don’t Touch That Button!

“When people say they’re never going to use the (nuclear) deterrent,” said General Sir Nicholas Houghton, “I say you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day. The purpose of the deterrent is you don’t have to use it because you effectively deter.”

You sort of know what he meant to say, although his syntax needs some work. But the general’s incoherence is forgiveable, because it is grounded in the greater incoherence of the strategy he is trying to defend: the notion of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

As Britain’s most senior serving military officer, Houghton went on the BBC last weekend to denounce the leader of the opposition, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because Corbyn had said he would never press the nuclear button in the (rather remote) contingency that he becomes prime minister after the 2020 election.

Indeed, Corbyn has said that he would like to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons entirely. “There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world,” he told the BBC a month ago. “Three others have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; one hundred and eighty-seven countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security?”

Now, there are a few errors and omissions in that statement. 192 minus eight is 184. The five “declared” countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – were already nuclear weapons powers before the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, and their bombs were “grandfathered” by the treaty. They promised to get rid of them eventually, but half a century later “eventually” has still not arrived.

The four (not three) other nuclear weapons countries, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, never signed the NPT because they all had powerful enemies. Just like the original five, they were all thinking in terms of sheer survival when they developed their first nuclear weapons.

But what Corbyn failed to mention (to the great disadvantage of his argument) was that six other countries either had nuclear weapons or were on the brink of getting them – but then turned around and walked away from them.

Brazil and Argentina frightened each other into a race to develop nuclear weapons under the ultra-nationalist military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, but they didn’t really pose a threat to each other and the programmes were ditched by civilian governments in the 1990s. Both countries signed the NPT just before the century ended.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all wound up with ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil. But they had no real enemies, so they all agreed to destroy them or give them back to Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

And South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the dying days of apartheid, fearing that Cuban and Russian military help to the “front-line states” of Africa might grow into an all-out military assault on the white-ruled state. After white minority rule ended peacefully in 1994, the new government led by Nelson Mandela quietly dismantled the six South African bombs.

Nobody developed nuclear weapons just to feel more powerful: they were all driven by fear of attack. And when that fear vanished, as it did for some countries, they promptly got out of the nuclear weapons business again. Logically, both Britain and France should now belong the latter group.

They both built their bombs just after the Second World War because they feared an overwhelmingly powerful conventional conventional attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union, and didn’t trust the United States to use its own nuclear weapons to save them.

After the Soviet Union fell, they faced no threat that was even remotely comparable. They still don’t today. Yet they cling to their irrelevant nuclear weapons, presumably because they think that is what guarantees them a seat at the high table.

Maybe it does, but it is a very expensive way to keep a seat of such dubious value. The military forces that Britain actually uses from time to time are being hollowed out to maintain this ludicrous deterrent (which depends on missiles leased from the United States).

It wouldn’t transform the world if Britain got rid of its nukes, but it would be a down-payment on what all the declared nuclear powers said they would do when they signed the NPT. French nuclear disarmament would also be a good idea.

Like people who live on the slopes of a volcano that hasn’t erupted in seventy years, we have mostly forgotten the appalling danger that still looms over us. The Cold War ended thirty years ago but the weapons are still there, waiting for some fool or madman to press the button.

I know what you’re thinking: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and now it has a real enemy in Russia. So tell me: would you feel safer if Ukraine had nuclear weapons too? Would Ukrainians?

No. The stakes would be a hundred times higher, and we would have been living in a terrifying nightmare for the past two years.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, and 12. (“You…deterrent”; “But…them”; and “They…them”)

Nuclear Summits

10 April 2010

Nuclear Summits

By Gwynne Dyer

The international agenda is jammed with high-level meetings on nuclear weapons: a US-Russian treaty on cutting strategic nuclear weapons last week, a Washington mini-summit on non-proliferation this week, and a full-dress review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next month. It’s tempting to believe that we are making real progress in getting rid of the things, but I wouldn’t get my hopes too high.

The “New Start” treaty between Washington and Moscow sounds impressive, committing the two powers to reducing their “deployed strategic nuclear weapons” to 1,550 each. That’s a 30 percent cut on what the two powers last agreed, in their 2002 treaty – but it’s not as impressive as it seems, because most of their nuclear weapons are not “deployed strategic” ones.

The two countries currently have over 8,000 other nuclear warheads “awaiting dismantlement”, plus an unknown number of “tactical” warheads that are operationally available. They admit to having about 2,500, but those numbers are completely unverified and probably much lower than reality. Unofficial estimates suggest that Russia and the US really have at least 10,000 tactical nukes.

Add at least a thousand Chinese, British, French, Indian, Pakistani and Israeli nuclear warheads (plus a couple of North Korean ones that sort of work), and there are probably around 25,000 nuclear warheads on the planet. That’s fewer than there were at the height of the Cold War, but it’s still around one nuclear weapon for every 250,000 people on the planet.

With the right targeting pattern, therefore, you could still kill or maim almost everybody on the planet with the existing stock of nuclear weapons. In practice, of course, they are targeted at particular countries that should expect a much denser concentration of explosions in case of war. And the New Start treaty will eventually reduce that global total of nuclear weapons by only about 7 percent.

Besides, the US Senate will probably not ratify the treaty. It takes a two-thirds Senate majority – 67 votes out of a hundred – to ratify a treaty, but all 41 Republican senators have already said that they will not support New Start. Their pretext is a non-binding statement in the treaty that recognises a link between “offensive” missiles and ballistic missile defence, but in practice it’s just Republican strategy to block every White House initiative.

President Barack Obama’s commitment to a world that is ultimately free from nuclear weapons seems genuine, but his real strategy right now is not focussed on the weapons of the existing nuclear weapons powers. What he really wants to do is strengthen the anti-proliferation regime, and for that he needed some symbolic movement towards nuclear disarmament from the US and Russia.

The problem with the NPT from the start was that the non-nuclear powers kept their promise not to develop nuclear weapons, while the great powers that already had them did not keep their parallel promise to get rid of them. After forty years of that, there is an understandable impatience among the non-nuclear majority, and New Start is the best piece of symbolism that Obama can come up with. It may not be enough.

Obama clearly hoped that the Washington summit of 47 countries this week would provide him with extra leverage at the major review conference on the NPT next month in New York. He could use it to bring pressure on Iran, a signatory of the NPT that he suspects of working secretly on nuclear weapons – but it turned out that other countries wanted to bring up Israeli nuclear weapons too.

Only four countries in the world have not signed and ratified the NPT. Three of them, India, Pakistan and North Korea, have openly developed and tested nuclear weapons. The fourth, Israel, refuses to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, but it is generally reckoned to have at least 200 of them, plus a variety of delivery vehicles.

For almost fifty years Israel has got away with this “creative ambiguity”, but it was inevitable that it would be pressed to come clean if any other Middle Eastern country started working on nuclear weapons. The sheer hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to Israel’s nukes while condemning a country like Iran for allegedly seeking them too would become unsustainable. And so it has.

Egypt and Turkey are leading a campaign to have the Middle East declared a nuclear weapons-free zone. Their real concern is Iran’s putative nukes, but it is politically impossible for them to criticise Iran’s ambitions while ignoring the reality of Israeli nuclear weapons, so they decided to bring them up in Washington.

As soon as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu realised that was going to happen, he cancelled his plan to attend the conference and sent his deputy, Dan Meridor, to take the flak instead.

Netanyahu is already in a bitter confrontation with Obama over Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. It would not help to have Netanyahu stone-walling on Israeli nuclear policy at the Washington meeting and personally sabotaging Obama’s attempt to strengthen the NPT treaty. Better to have a subordinate do it instead.

So no dramatic progress soon on non-proliferation, but Obama’s initiative has not yet failed. Subjects that have been taboo for decades are being openly discussed, and real progress on non-proliferation is becoming a possibility.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. “Besides…initiative”; and “For almost…it has”)

India’s House of Cards

7 August 2008

India’s House of Cards

 By Gwynne Dyer

Three weeks ago, the Indian government did everything but raise the dead to win a crucial vote on its nuclear deal with the United States. Jailed members of parliament were given temporary release in order to vote, MPs in intensive care were wheeled into the chamber, and there was talk of multi-million dollar bribes being offered for MPs to change their votes.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won, in the end, but the nuclear house of cards he has built over the past few years is still tottering. The nuclear deal got past the International Atomic Energy Agency a week ago, but it faces a stormier passage when it goes before the Nuclear Suppliers Group later this month. Indeed, NSG members that hate the deal but don’t want to anger New Delhi can kill it just by stalling for a little while.

President Bush must send the completed deal, approved by the IAEA and the NSG, to the US Congress before early September, or it is effectively dead. Congress must have the bill for thirty days before it can vote on it. It is currently scheduled to adjourn in late September — and if the favoured candidate in the presidential election, Barack Obama, wins the November vote, the deal will not be resurrected after he takes office.

How do we know that? Because Obama really doesn’t like nuclear weapons. Late last year, he rashly promised that he would never use nuclear weapons against civilians. Then, when he was criticised for that “gaffe” — who ever heard of a president who wasn’t willing to kill civilians? — he went flat out and said that the United States should seek “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.” Not even American ones.

Obama has not specifically addressed the US-Indian nuclear deal, but he has said that he will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is certainly not compatible with accepting the deal that President George W. Bush cut with Manmohan Singh. That deal is all about circumventing the NPT so that India (which has not signed the treaty) gets to keep its nuclear weapons, and still gets permission to buy nuclear materials and technology on the international market.

A moment’s digression here, so that Indian readers don’t go completely ballistic. The NPT is grossly unfair. There is no good argument for why five great powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — should be seen as legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons while nobody else is entitled to them. Is India less important or less trustworthy than those countries?

The only reason India has been treated as a nuclear rogue state is that it carried out its first nuclear test in 1974, six years after the NPT was signed. And in fairness to Pakistani and Israeli readers, whose countries also possess nuclear weapons unauthorised by the NPT, neither is there any good argument for saying that great powers should have nuclear weapons and lesser powers should not. In fact, you could easily argue that case the other way around.

If you get tangled up in the question of what is fair, there will be no end to the discussion. The NPT is a crudely pragmatic device that was meant to head off a world of twenty or thirty nuclear-armed countries, and it has been moderately successful. Nobody is going to take India’s nuclear weapons away (or Pakistan’s, or Israel’s), but there is still value in trying to prevent the further spread of such dreadful capabilities.

In that context, it does not help to give India a free pass, which is what is now being attempted by Washington. Yes, India has ignored the NPT and developed nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration wants to exempt it from the NPT sanctions that stop everybody else from selling it nuclear materials and technology because….well, because the United States would like to have India as an ally.

The US-Indian deal is not really about nuclear weapons. It is about military cooperation on a much broader front; in fact, it is an alliance under another name. The target of the proposed alliance is China, which both the Bush administration and its Asian allies, notably in Japan, see as an emergent strategic threat. If they can sign the Indians up too, then China has a real two-front problem, and that may make it behave more cautiously. Or so the conventional strategic thinking goes.

The nuclear deal between the United States and India that has used up so much political time and energy over the past three years is the US down-payment on the Indian alliance. The United States gets a big, nuclear-armed India as an ally on China’s southern and western frontiers. India gets China as a potential enemy, but it also gets access to American high-tech weapons, and it is washed clean of its sins on the nuclear proliferation front.

But the Nuclear Suppliers Group is unlikely to accept the deal without imposing some conditions (like no more nuclear tests) that the Indian parliament will not accept, and the US Congress may adjourn next month without voting on the legislation. Bush is gone in January, and Manmohan Singh’s government, which must call an election next year, is probably gone by next July.

All that effort, all those lies, all those favours called in — and still it’s probably not going to happen. India will probably not become America’s loyal ally in Asia. Good.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A moment’s…around”)

The Iranian “Crisis”

28 August 2006

The Iranian “Crisis”

By Gwynne Dyer

The United Nations Security Council deadline for Iran to stop producing enriched uranium expires on 31 August, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annnan arrives in Tehran on 2 September. Washington demands UN sanctions against Iran if it doesn’t stop, and hints at air strikes against Iranian nuclear installations if sanctions don’t happen or don’t work. Welcome to the crisis.

The media love a crisis, but this one seriously lacks credibility. In June John Negroponte, US Director of National Intelligence, told the BBC that Iran could have a nuclear bomb ready between 2010 and 2015. But he said “could”, not “will”, and only in five or ten years’ time. So why are we having a crisis this autumn?

The US government’s explanation is that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad threatened in May to “wipe Israel off the map,” and that nuclear weapons are the way he plans to do it. (Any that are left over would presumably be given to terrorists.) As proof of Iran’s evil ambitions, it points to the fact, revealed in 2003, that Iran had been concealing some parts of its so-called peaceful nuclear energy programme from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for eighteen years.

But there are a number of holes in this narrative, and the first is that Ahmedinejad never said he wanted to “wipe Israel off the map.” This is a strange and perhaps deliberate mistranslation of his actual words, a direct quote from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the font of all wisdom in revolutionary Iran, who said some twenty years ago that “this regime occupying Jerusalem (i.e. Israel) must vanish from the page of time.”

It was a statement about the future (possibly the quite far future)as ordained by God. It was NOT a threat to destroy Israel. Attacking Israel has never been Iranian policy, and a few days later the man who really runs Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly stated that Iran “will not commit aggression against any nation.” While Ahmadinejad continues to say nasty things about Israel, he too has explicitly rejected accusations that Iran plans to attack it.

Of course it doesn’t. Israel has had its unacknowledged nuclear weapons targeted on Iran since Ahmadinejad was a small boy. Even if Iran were eventually to get some too, it could not realistically hope to catch up with Israel’s hundreds of weapons and sophisticated delivery vehicles. (Israel can strike Iran with aircraft, with ballistic missiles, and possibly with Harpoon missiles fired from its German-built Dolphin-class submarines and refitted to carry nuclear warheads.)

If Iran doesn’t have a serious nuclear weapons programme, why did it hide two of its nuclear facilities from the IAEA for eighteen years? Eighteen years before 2003 was 1987, at the height of Saddam Hussein’s US-backed war against Iran, with Iraqi missiles falling daily on Iranian cities. They had conventional explosive warheads, but the Iranians suspected (rightly, at that time) that Saddam was working on nuclear weapons as well.

So the Iranians probably decided to revive the Shah’s old nuclear weapons programme, and hid the plans for the new facilities to keep them off Saddam’s target list and to avoid an early confrontation with the IAEA.

Then the war ended, and work on Iranian nuclear weapons stopped too, at the latest after UN inspectors dismantled Saddam’s nuclear programme in the early 1990s. We can be sure of this because Iran would have had nuclear weapons long ago if it had wanted them badly enough: it doesn’t take over eighteen years for a country with Iran’s resources.

The undeclared nuclear facilities remained secret because it was embarrassing to admit that Iran had concealed them, but no great effort went into finishing them. (In fact, President Ahmadinejad finally opened one of them, the heavy water facility at Arak, only this month.) But the fact that Iran hid them for so long is the only reason that anybody has for doubting the legitimacy of its current actions, since it is quite legal for a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop the technologies and facilities for enriching nuclear fuels for power plants.

Iran probably does now intend to work steadily towards a “threshold” nuclear capability (the ability to break out of the NPT and build nuclear weapons very rapidly if necessary) because it is surrounded by nuclear weapons powers: India and Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north, Israel to the west, and US forces on both its western and eastern borders in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a threshold nuclear capability is still perfectly legal, and many countries that have signed the NPT have achieved it already.

Iran’s actions are not worth a real crisis, and the situation is certainly not very urgent. Iran’s reply to the Security Council offered further negotiations on the issue, though it will not agree to stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talks. In these circumstances, neither Russia or China, two veto-holding powers, will vote to impose serious sanctions on Iran, nor will a number of the non-permanent members of the Security Council. So if the Bush administration truly believes that this is important and urgent, it will have to act alone and outside the law.

Would it really do such a foolish thing again after the Iraq fiasco? Unfortunately, it might.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Of course…ones”;and “Iran probably…already”)