The prediction, long made by campaigners against nuclear weapons, that proliferation would be an inevitable consequence of a few elite states possessing the bomb, has come to bear. Those countries with nuclear weapons continue to upgrade, replenish and replace their stocks, while those without them are increasingly weighing up the benefits of joining this notorious club of nations.
Whilst we may collectively kick up a fuss about the gradual subversion of the idea of a nuclear-free world from time to time, bolstered by the fact that nuclear weapons were never used during the cold war, realist political theorists have successfully popularised the idea that the more states which possess the bomb the less likely war becomes. Like the car or the internet, we have gradually come to accept nuclear weapons as an everyday part of civilisation.
And yet the fear that previous generations had, that a lunatic, or a lunatic regime, would one day acquire a nuclear weapon, may soon be realised. A dictatorship which held on to power three-and-a-half years ago by butchering, shooting and raping its citizens is approaching the point where it will have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. The big question President Obama will have to answer during his second term will be how far he is willing to go to stop this from happening.
That the theocracy is intent on getting the bomb is increasingly incontrovertible. Just this week the United Nations nuclear chief reiterated that Iran is not cooperating with an investigation into suspected secret work on nuclear weapons. And in September, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors expressed “serious concern” after its inspection team found that Iran had produced enough 20 per cent-enriched uranium in a single year to fuel its one nuclear research reactor for 15 years.
For a regime which maintains it has no desire to build nuclear weapons this seems a strange way to carry on.
Elsewhere the Iranian government's proxies are less interested in keeping up appearances. In Lebanon, Hezbollah flags have been spotted adorned with a mushroom cloud; and the theocracy's more zealous newspapers have begun to gloat over the potential a nuclear Iran would have to bully its Arab neighbours.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when we in the West became comfortable with, or perhaps I should say resigned to the prospect of, an Iranian bomb. On the political Left, there is often a much greater clamber to condemn the possibility of the West disarming Iran than there is to argue against further nuclear proliferation – an inversion of the original principles of the disarmament movement if nothing else. The problem for the Right, with its pessimistic view of human nature, is that it believes the existence of nuclear arms is inevitable, and puts to the back of its mind the near-misses that occurred during the so-called “balance of terror” that governed the 20th century.
And yet any one of the following incidents should have rid us of the glib notion that the potential for worldwide nuclear war is confined strictly to the realms of science fiction.
* During a meeting with Robert McNamara to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, Cuban leader Fidel Castro told the former US Secretary of Defence that “of course” he was aware that the Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba in 1962 were nuclear-armed. “That's precisely why I urged Khrushchev to launch them,” responded Castro. Asked what he thought the consequences for Cuba would have been had Khrushchev heeded his advice, according to McNamara Castro said the island would have been “totally destroyed in the exchange”, before adding that McNamara would have “done the same” were he in his position.
* On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge of monitoring the Soviet Union's satellites over the US, intercepted a message indicating the launch of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from American bases. Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov believed at the time that the US was preparing an all-out first strike nuclear attack, and in anticipation had implemented a “launch at warning” order, which meant Soviet retaliation no longer required the usual confirmation of an enemy attack. Upon receiving the system alert, Petrov hesitated, and after five long minutes decided that the launch reports must be false. Petrov later told journalists that his decision not to start an all-out nuclear war was based partly on a guess.
* In 1979, British and American computer systems malfunctioned, and indicated that the Soviet Union had launched a massive nuclear attack on the US. Fighter jets across the West were scrambled and emergency preparations for retaliation were made. Six minutes later the all-clear was sounded. A junior Canadian military officer had mistakenly put a tape simulating a Soviet attack into the wrong computer.
It hardly needs pointing out that the West has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons. It’s also quite true that one cannot with a straight face preach non-proliferation, nor expect it, whilst building up one's own lethal nuclear arsenal.
That said, I haven’t heard any plausible explanation as to why an Iranian bomb would increase the likelihood of the West getting rid of its weapons. Considering that a nuclear-armed Iran would have broken every undertaking it has ever made to the IAEA and the European Union, a likely consequence would be a further nail driven into the coffin of non-proliferation, conceivably consigning the cause to the history books. This would not only be bad for Israel, as some smugly suggest, but would be an unimaginable disaster for all of us, including millions more who have not yet been born.
President Obama’s dilemma is that preventing the Iranian theocracy from going nuclear may itself unleash near-apocalyptic consequences. All the same, those of us without the weight of the entire world on our shoulders can at least have an idea of the potential consequences of what it is we seem so blasé about.