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The nonsense of the panic
of proliferation



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

February 20, 2006

LONDON - Lost somewhere in the mists of history is the knowledge that it was the pro-American Shah of Iran who initiated Iran's quest to build a nuclear bomb. And it was the anti-American revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that initially suspended work on the bomb, from 1972 to 1985.

Fanning the panic of proliferation has been a mainstay of the Bush Administration, supported in the wings by the British government and more recently France's president, Jacques Chirac. It is a high stakes game that can slide too easily into the call for regime change, as it did with Iraq.

Yet current would-be proliferators are arguably not as dead set on proliferating, nor even as advanced in their capabilities, as their antagonists suggest. But unyielding critical rhetoric combined with a lack of incentives to back down seems to only have the effect of making the likes of North Korea and Iran more determined than they ever were.

Moreover, today's game overlooks that the success of previous policy in persuading countries to give up and unwind their nuclear armaments' plans or stocks of bombs - South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and, most recently, Libya. This was because the right incentives were put before them.

In fact the Libyan nuclear program had gone on for many more years than has either the Iranian or North Korean. Despite a great deal of assistance from Pakistan's rogue nuclear weapons' entrepreneur, A.Q. Kahn, Libya appeared seriously slowed, if not stalled, by apparently insurmountable difficulties.

Iran may well be trying to build nuclear weapons but it doesn't give the impression of being in a tearing hurry. Its heavy water moderated research reactor will not be online until 2014. Those who have suggested an earlier timetable ignore the slow progress made on completing the Bushehr reactor, a light-water nuclear power reactor initially ordered from Germany in 1975. 

As for North Korea, an evaluation by Alexander Montgomery in the current issue of Harvard's quarterly, International Security, argues that North Korea is likely to possess much less plutonium than is commonly claimed. Making a close analysis of the capacity factor of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and factoring in the number of shutdowns it has experienced as a result of mechanical problems, together with the fact that 700 broken fuel rods were placed in dry storage, it is unlikely that North Korea has more than enough plutonium for three bombs, not enough to sell or use in a test and still maintain a sufficient deterrent.

Moreover, North Korea only embarked an its effort to develop a uranium enrichment plant late in 2000. Perhaps North Korea all along has only thought of nuclear weapon development as a useful bargaining chip.

Overstating the dangers of these countries' developing the bomb under the Bush administration compares starkly with the peculiar insouciance of the Clinton administration. In his book the deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbot, confesses the administration's total surprise when India held its first nuclear weapons' test, even though articles in The Statesman, an Indian daily, had warned it was coming a couple of months before.

Clinton's only major accomplishment in the field was paced by the freelance diplomatic activity of former president Jimmy Carter. Clinton agreed to a deal forged by Carter and Kim il Sung that ended North Korea's nuclear bomb development in return for the building of two conventional nuclear power stations and a lifting of the American trade embargo. Clinton never seemed to realize this was his most stupendous foreign policy success and allowed the Republican majority in Congress to get away with sabotaging full implementation of the deal. The Administration and the media left the American public to sleep on the issue.

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But the Clinton Administration did lay the foundations for its successor to raise Cain about the possibility of a rogue, nuclear armed, country building sophisticated enough nuclear tipped missiles to launch an attack on the American heartland. The anti-missile shield is a preposterous and expensive solution to a problem that need never exist.

Some opponents of the missile shield have said that an attack that does come will be from a terrorist group armed with a stolen or primitively manufactured nuclear weapon smuggled in on a boat. But as a new report, "Nuclear Terrorism After 9/11", from the International Institute for Strategic Studies makes clear, Russian nuclear weapons have remained safely secured even during the early years of turbulence; there is no evidence of a nuclear black market - demand has not responded to the minor supply; it is highly improbable that any terrorist group could become a do-it-yourself nuclear power; and the so called 'dirty nuclear bombs' would cause only a small number of casualties.

Joe Public is being led by the nose on nuclear weapons' policy. It has become nothing more than a political game.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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