Matt Gurney: An Iranian nuclear bomb will make deterrence harder (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) 03/16/12)
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In a column published by the Washington Post on Thursday, Fareed
Zakaria grants that the Iranian nuclear program would be an
unpleasant thing for Israel to live with, and a costly thing for Iran
to pursue. But, he concludes, if Iran does build the bomb, it can be
deterred as the Soviet Union was. Nuclear deterrence, argues Zakaria,
is ugly … but it works.
It’s certainly ugly. And expensive, and unpopular. And it has worked.
But that doesn’t mean it will continue to work. Nuclear deterrence,
while not exactly a new concept, has only really been applied in
certain select circumstances. Its longevity is unquestioned, but the
sample size is tiny. Put bluntly, nuclear deterrence is great … so
long as it works. It’s when it stops working that things get ugly.
Zakaria is correct to note that nuclear weapons were largely
responsible for keeping the Cold War from turning hot. But nuclear
deterrence between those powers was a stabilizing influence because
America’s sole possession of the bomb between 1945 and 1949 was
itself destabilizing — fear of American atomic power led the Soviet
Union to keep an enormous ground army in eastern and central Europe
after the Second World War ended. Once both sides were packing atomic
heat, and effective means of delivering their arsenals, control of
Europe became less of a decisive issue. It wasn’t unimportant, to be
sure … but it wasn’t what would decide the Cold War. National
survival was the only road to victory.
Likewise has the Pakistani arsenal proven a stabilizing
counterbalance to India’s superiority — numerical, military and
economic. Pakistan, though an unstable state infested with Islamists,
has made responsible use of its nuclear arsenal, which removed any
motivation for India (which was a known nuclear power decades before
Pakistan was) to ever seek an end to their long-simmering border
disputes through overtly hostile means. The threat of
Pakistani “loose nukes” falling into the wrong hands is certainly
worrisome, especially if the state were to suddenly destabilize, but
Pakistan would arguably be a less stable country if its traditional
enemy held a nuclear advantage over them.
It’s far from clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon would serve to in
any way stabilize the region. The reverse is likely true. Israel and
Iran have no long-running territorial disputes that would be put on
ice by an Iranian bomb. Iran is not engaged in a regional
conventional arms race. It faces no realistic prospect of being
invaded, and possesses sufficient conventional forces to make any
such operation difficult even for the U.S.. And it would be less
likely to suffer airstrikes if it wasn’t racing for the bomb.
Unlike countries past, Iran is not building the bomb to negate an
enemy’s advantage, real or perceived. America feared the Red Army.
The Soviets feared the U.S. Air Force. China feared both the Soviets
and America. India feared China, and Pakistan, India. North Korea
fears the South … at least as far as anything they do can be
perceived to be rational.
Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to restore stability to the region.
It has diplomatic support from Russia and China, and is clearly
willing to endure crippling sanctions. There’s an argument to be made
that Iran had good reason to think it needed nukes in 2003, when U.S.-
or NATO-led armies had toppled the regimes on either side of it in
Iraq and Afghanistan. But a lot has changed since then, and not in
the West’s favour. An Iranian bomb simply isn’t needed anymore to
reassure the mullahs that the West will stay out. We can’t afford to
But Iran’s bomb would provide cover for its existing activities —
oppression at home and supporting terror abroad. It will make Iran
harder to deter, not easier — a nuclear Iran will be largely free to
act however it wishes, so long as it stops short of any action that
would force an enemy to decide that a nuclear exchange was the better
response than doing nothing. Israel has already accepted the presence
of heavily armed Iranian proxies on its border — not gladly accepted,
of course, but they’ve been factored into Israel’s thinking. An Iran
bomb is new, and will radically reshape the Middle East, making it
more unstable and therefore more dangerous.
Nuclear deterrence has worked so far. But that doesn’t mean that it
does work, only that it has. Iran may prove the exception that proves
deterrence’s rule. (© 2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia
Network Inc. 03/15/12)
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