Nuclear Realities
When it comes to nukes, who has them matters a lot more than how many there are.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear facility in 2007


Victor Davis Hanson

Given the worrying over nuclear Iran, it is timely to review the rules of nuclear proliferation.

Otherwise insignificant nations and failed states gain credibility by shorting their own people to divert billions of dollars to acquiring a bomb. Take away that fact from Pakistan, and the United States would probably have reduced aid to such a de facto belligerent long ago. Without the ongoing appearance of possessing nukes, North Korea would probably earn about as much foreign aid as Chad or Niger. What makes France a world player, in a way that the much larger and richer Germany is not, is not just the burdens of German guilt, but also the fact of a nuclear France. The bomb sometimes achieves what even GDP, population, strategic location, or natural resources cannot.

Presumed madness is a force multiplier of nuclear capability, especially in an Islamic apocalyptic context. Under conventional nuclear deterrence, rough nuclear parity, and the assurance that neither side has a first-strike capability sufficient to render its opponent nuclearly impotent, prevent both wars and nuclear blackmail. But if a head of state can feign insanity, or, better yet, convincingly announce a wish for the apocalypse, then he can, in theory, circumvent some traditional rules of deterrence. An Iranian theocrat’s supposed willingness to use his sole nuclear weapon to wipe out tiny Israel — at the cost of losing 30 million Iranians from retaliation — yields a cheap way to obtain not just parity with Israel, but potentially a nuclear advantage.

In any given Middle Eastern crisis, a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran will always talk of the return of the hidden imam while threatening to repeat the Holocaust. By these means, it hopes to reap political concessions that its paltry array of nukes would not otherwise warrant. Acting as if one had nothing to lose is an advantage in nuclear poker — analogous to the supposedly prison-bound high-school dropout picking a fight with his graduating, Harvard-bound counterpart.

All intelligence concerning the current status of the world’s nuclear club is inexact at best. Therefore, to achieve nuclear deterrence, it may not even be necessary for a rogue state to provide conclusive proof that it has nuclear weapons on hand and that they actually work.

Iraq might well never have been able to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium from its Osirak reactor to make a bomb, even had Israel not destroyed the plant in 1981. No matter: Had we known in 1991 that the reactor was intact and had been working for a decade, there is real doubt whether the United States would have dared to invade Iraq during the first Gulf War.

Moammar Qaddafi reportedly gave up his nuclear-weapons program for fear of meeting the same fate as Saddam Hussein. But he may have wrongly surmised, on the basis of our claim that we had invaded Iraq in part to stop Saddam’s WMD program, that the existence of such a program would have prompted a U.S. preemptive response. He might have been more accurate had he concluded that uncertainty about the status of his nuclear acquisition might have convinced the U.S. of the dangers of attacking such a potential nuclear power. Had Qaddafi instead accelerated work on his nuclear program from 2003 to 2011 — even falsely claiming at key intervals that he had a bomb — there is less likelihood that NATO would have bombed him out of power last year.

Syria, after the fall of Saddam, apparently better understood these realities and therefore was racing to enrich uranium and obtain one or two bombs. Israel destroyed its enrichment facility near Deir ez-Zor in 2007 when it was unequivocally clear that Syria was not yet nuclear. Note, as in the case of Saddam Hussein in 1981, that Bashar al-Assad did not retaliate against Israel in 2007 — apparently afraid to engage a nuclear Israel over a matter of nuclear weapons. Had the reactor not been bombed then, today, nearly five years later, Assad might well have been able to at least feign nuclear capability in a way that might have shielded him against foreign pressures.

To this day, we do not know whether North Korea has successfully detonated a nuclear bomb that is easily deliverable. But it does not matter; we need to know only that it has achieved some sort of nuclear reaction that suggests the ability to repeat it a few times. That fact prevents any sort of preemptive attack on a North Korean reactor, giving North Korea the sort of exemption that Iraq, Libya, and Syria never quite achieved.

The United States, in well-meaning fashion, is supposedly considering unilaterally reducing its nuclear force, perhaps even well below the limits agreed on with the Russians. Rumors circulate that a few in the administration are pondering a more radical reduction, to 400 nukes or even fewer — about what China or India may possess.