Nuclear deterrence, nation-states and the real threat from nuclear proliferation

July 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 29, 2015

I’m not particularly eager to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons. For one thing, Iran’s government has traditionally shown extreme hostility toward Israel. For another, nuclear proliferation in general seems to hold great potential to destabilize any region.

Even so, I suspect the danger of Iran’s successful development of nuclear armaments may be somewhat exaggerated. The problem, I fear, is that atomic weaponry might fall into the hands of a terrorist organization such as the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda or the like.

Nations can act recklessly — see Operation Iraqi Freedom — but generally, they do so with one underlying goal in mind: To insure their continued existence and, if possible, prosperity. A nation tied to a nuclear strike would almost surely face extensive shunning by the global community. Economic repercussions would be all but guaranteed; some kind of military counterstrike would be likely; the chances of a war being launched to unseat that nation’s rulers would rise significantly.

Forty years ago, when satellite surveillance was in its infancy, the leaders of a rogue nation might have believed they had a chance to launch a nuclear missile without being identified. Today, leaders would have to be insane or suicidal to think their nation might get away with such a strike.

And, in fact, look at what’s happened since the dawn of the nuclear age: The only nation to use nuclear weapons against living human was the first one to acquire the atomic bomb — the United States during World War II. For decades, despite fears about nuclear proliferation, not a single other nuclear weapon has been detonated over an occupied city, military base or ship.

When the Soviet Union, the Cold War archenemy of the U.S. and Western Europe, acquired the atomic bomb, it built a massive strike force with nuclear-equipped silos, bombers and submarines. None were ever fired except in tests. This was at least in part because the doctrine of nuclear deterrence — the knowledge that if either the Soviets or Americans attacked, a retaliatory strike would inflict devastating damage, if not inflict utter destruction — influenced key decision-makers.

Alarms were sounded when Pakistan conducted nuclear explosives tests in 1998, shortly after its regional rival, India, did the same. No one was happy when North Korea first tested nuclear weapons in 2006, and no one is happy that this unpredictable nation successfully tested a long-range rocket three years ago. The sharply divided Middle East has had a nuclear power, Israel, since shortly before the Six-Day War in 1967.

And yet, despite all this, not one atomic device has been detonated in a military capacity since 1945.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Israel or Pakistan or India or North Korea — or heck, Russia or France (which has had nuclear weapons since 1960) or China (member of the nuclear club since 1964), or any of a handful of other nations, including the U.S. — could lob a bomb at another nation.

So yes, there’s an obvious risk in nuclear proliferation. Still, logic and history indicate that the risks have been overblown, not least of all by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rather ludicrously claimed in mid-July that Iran is bent on world domination?

But here’s the potential development that does worry me: A nuclear weapon being built — or, more likely, acquired — by a terrorist group. If a group were able to smuggle a suitcase bomb, or even a more traditional atomic device, into, say, Tel Aviv and set it off, the international community’s ability to respond would be limited.

It’s one thing for Russia or Iran to launch a missile. In such cases, unless the respective government immediately issued a claim that the launch was conducted without authorization, a retaliatory strike against that nation’s nuclear installations would likely win almost immediate backing from most of the civilized world — and additional punishment, whether military or economic, would probably follow. (In fact, retaliation might follow even if the nation disavowed responsibility.)

But if al Qaeda or the Islamic State were to detonate a nuclear device, how would the world react? The U.S. waited nearly a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before opening hostilities against Afghanistan, partly because the nation was unprepared, but also partly because it was unclear where or against whom America should aim its weapons.

What’s instructive about this situation is that Afghanistan’s Taliban regime made itself an easy target. The Taliban won international opprobrium for its cruel reactionary practices; as Zachary Laub of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, these included banning music and television, forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe and jailing men whose beards were deemed too short. The Taliban also made Afghanistan a sanctuary for al Qaeda, which drew United Nations Security Council sanctions in 1999 for this very reason. Even so, Afghanistan might have prevented an invasion by U.S. and allied forces had its leadership agreed to turn over Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11.

So despite this representing a relatively clear-cut case, the question of where and how to retaliate for a devastating terrorist attack was difficult to answer. (It didn’t help, of course, that some members of George W. Bush’s administration were determined to invade Iraq despite its lack of culpability for the Sept. 11 atrocities.)

Iran’s leaders may not be entirely rational, but they’re probably not suicidal, and they know that the international community will hold them accountable for what they might do with nuclear weapons. That’s why my main concern regarding atomic bombs doesn’t involve nations but smaller, more nebulous groups.

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