Today's date:
Spring 2006

Iranian Nuke Would Be Suicide Bomb

Thomas C. Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics for 2005. A professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Schelling has long been active on nuclear-weapons issues. His comments are adapted from a recent talk with NPQ.

Bethesda, MD. — Hope for the future rests on the fact that, despite plenty of opportunities to use the bomb in these past few decades—whether the United States in Korea or Vietnam, or Israel when Egyptian troops crossed the Suez in 1973, or the Soviets in Afghanistan—it wasn’t used.

This reality ought to impress India or Pakistan or anyone else who acquires nuclear weapons. By looking at these foregone opportunities, they will realize for their own case that using the bomb would incur universal opprobrium, if not bring devastation down on their own house.

By calling this record to the attention of the Iranian leadership in particular, I hope it will see that any actual use of nuclear weapons other than holding them in reserve for deterrence would cause it to lose any friend it has and multiply their enemies.

I don’t think the ayatollahs or anyone else in Iran wants their own nation wiped off the map. They know that Israel has enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to utterly destroy Iran in retaliation for any attack on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. This would deter them. To hit Israel would be suicide.

The Iranians are not stupid. I’m sure they are studying the history of the past six decades, and of the Indian and Pakistani bombs, to see what nuclear weapons are good for—“defense and deterrence” and what they are not—actual use.

DETERRENCE AND TERRORISTS | I don’t know if deterrence fits somehow into their metaphysics, but terrorist groups are not likely to have much physical competence. Aum Shinrikyo did a lousy job of trying to poison people in the subway. They don’t strike me as the kind of people who could put together a nuclear weapon if they had the fissile material. They might not be able to recognize if fissile material bought on the black market was really any good.

Most terrorist groups would have a hard time finding people who actually have the technical competence in making a bomb who would be willing to devote themselves to doing so—going off into seclusion, leaving their jobs and families for long periods and risk, in the end, being vilified as the bomb builder.

It is simply too hard to recruit topflight scientists, engineers and machinists needed to do the job. And if they were able to do that, they would have put together an intellectual team that would have a hard time submitting to terrorist goals. Once such a group managed to put together a bomb, they would likely find it too precious to use and instead try to leverage influence from its threatened use.

THE US BUNKER BUSTER | The US government ought to recognize the taboo is in its favor and not try to develop a new generation of weapons with the aim of making them somehow useful on the battlefield. I’m afraid a lot of people in the Pentagon think, “We are so rich in nuclear weapons, it is a shame not to use them.” They should learn we are so rich in people and infrastructure that we will risk losing that if we encourage others, by our own example, to look positively on the use of nuclear weapons.

That is why, among other things, it is important to get the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—not because testing is important, but because that treaty is a pillar of the taboo, another nail in the coffin of the idea of weapons use. The US, above all, should never say nuclear weapons should be used preemptively.

NUCLEAR APARTHEID | I don’t think the US has a convincing argument against this Iranian charge of nuclear apartheid—especially since we’ve been allies of Israel for many decades knowing it has nuclear weapons. Although the Iranians should recognize clearly the limits on Israel—even when it had the perfect target for tactical nuclear weapons with Egyptian troops as sitting ducks out in the Sinai desert in 1973, Golda Meir didn’t use them.

I don’t know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare—as the Indians and Pakistanis have done—that they are for deterrence and defense, not for offensive use.

Further, we should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons is secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?

It is important for the Iranians to understand—and have access to—technology like we have in the US that disables bombs if they get into the wrong hands. US weapons, for example, have “permissive action links”—a radio signal code that arms weapons but that will also automatically disarm them if launched at an unauthorized target.

This will be a big dilemma for the US. If the Iranians get weapons, will we be willing to share the technology to ensure the security of their use? That is where the debate is heading.