Opinion: “The Nuclear Cascade”

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

I believe the most dangerous to the United States is the possibility of an Al Qaeda bomb. The 9/11 Commission, as Allison reminds, reported that Osama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri met with two Pakistani scientists to discuss nuclear weapons. Bin Laden has called the acquisition of nuclear weapons his “religious duty,” and has said his aspiration is to kill 4 million Americans.

The most volatile nuclear issue at the moment, however, is the Iranian bomb, for no other reason than Isreal’s threat to attack Iran to prevent it. The consequences of such an attack would be incalculable, and would deepen the West’s crisis with Islamic extremism.

So far Obama has been successful at holding back the Israelis with the promise of playing the severe sanctions card if diplomatic overtures fail.

Complicating matters is the question of how to respond to the growing voices of dissidence in Iran. Neither Israel nor the U.S. want to undermine the Iranian opposition, and strategy is now moving toward showing more support for the forces of protest.

The U.S. would hope to employ smart sanctions that could punish the Revolutionary Guard without punishing the people. According to the “Economist,” the Israelis “seem inclined the other way." They say ordinary Iranians “would blame their government, not the outside world, for any sanctions; so the embargo should be as crushing as possible. Domestic instability should be encouraged.”

Alas for the Israelis, the tactic of collective punishment in the hopes of alienating the people from their leaders has been tried and tried again with the Palestinians with no success over the decades.

But time grows short. Graham Allison rides to spread the news to every Middlesex village and town that the nukes are coming. He warns that the next 12 months “could be pivotal” in determining whether the entire edifice of non-proliferation can be held together, or whether it will dissolve into “the nuclear cascade” in which nations around the world seek their own weapons of mass destruction, making the world a decidedly more dangerous place.