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Opinion: “The Nuclear Cascade”

Will the edifice of non-proliferation hold? The next 12 months could be pivotal in determining the answer.

A suspected uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, 97 miles southwest of Tehran, is seen in this Sept. 27, 2009 satellite photograph released by DigitalGlobe. (Reuters/DigitalGlobe)

BOSTON — One has to admit he gave it his best shot. In his first year in office President Barack Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to reach out to Iran and attempt, if not quite a reconciliation, an honest try at resolving peripheral differences, and to open up a dialogue in which Iran and the United States could discuss their legitimate concerns and air their historic grievances. He gave the Iranians a year to either accept or reject his unclenched fist. That year is rapidly coming to a close, and Obama is no closer to his goal.

Whatever the outcome, Obama’s critics should always remember that the years of official hostility, the branding of Iran as an axis of evil, did nothing to modify Iran’s behavior. Indeed, it only strengthened Iran’s resolve to have a nuclear deterrent as the only way to forestall an American attack.

When Obama offered to turn the page with Iran he could not have foreseen the tumultuous and fraudulent Iranian election that spawned massive street demonstrations and a resistance that has shown a remarkable shelf life, given the repressive power of the state. Given the ongoing political crisis in Iran, it is unlikely that Iran can now enter into the kind of dialogue Obama was hoping for.

The goal, of course, is to dissuade Iran from making nuclear weapons. That may not be possible, given Iran’s nationalistic feelings and historic grievances, and the fact that the United States has armies on its eastern and western borders.

The best that the West can hope for is to persuade Iran that it should refrain from taking the last step of weaponization — i.e. the “last wire” theory in which Iran retains the capability of going nuclear but doesn’t take the final step of completion.

That is essentially what Japan has done, although the Japanese don’t talk about it. But should North Korea move toward more nuclear weapons than it has already developed, Japan could have their own bomb in a matter of days.

An Iranian bomb, it is feared, could cause what Harvard’s Graham Allison calls a “nuclear cascade” with many countries in the Middle East scrambling for bombs. Allison, the Paul Revere of nuclear proliferation, warns in the current issue of “Foreign Affairs” that there may have been talks already between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan about the sale or transfer of an “Islamic Bomb.” “In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia secretly purchased from China 36 CSS-2 missiles, which have a range of 1,500 miles and no plausible military use other than to carry nuclear weapons,” according to Allison.

Allison identifies “seven story lines” that are “advancing along crooked paths, each undermining the existing nuclear order.” They are:

  1. North Korea’s expanding weapons program
  2. Iran’s “nuclear ambitions"
  3. Pakistan’s increasing instability
  4. Al Qaeda’s enduring remnant
  5. Growing cynicism about the nonproliferation regime
  6. Nuclear energy’s renaissance
  7. New Lessons about the utility of nuclear weapons in international affairs