Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Nuclear Tipping Point

“It appears that we are at a ‘tipping point’ in proliferation. If Iran and North Korea proceed unchecked to build nuclear arsenals, there is a serious possibility of a cascade of proliferation following. And as each new nuclear power is added the probability of a terror group getting a nuclear bomb increases.”

So states a recent bi-partisan Congressional Commission report on the “strategic posture” of the United States. The report, which was presented to Congress a week ago, outlines a two-pronged approach for the U.S.’s nuclear policy: (1) continued deterrence and (2) arms control and nonproliferation. (See here for the report

Throughout its discussion on nonproliferation, the Commission emphasized that we are at, or near, a dangerous tipping point. It stressed that without continued American and Russian support for nonproliferation we may reach a point where the spread of nuclear weaponry becomes uncontrollable and extremely dangerous.

Implicit in the report, is that a nuclear Iran would spawn a Middle Eastern arms race. Accordingly, some Middle Eastern nations are already in the process of mimicking Iran’s nuclear program. This will have disastrous effects on the already unstable region. The first, more conventional worry revolves around the creation of a new breed of regional nuclear powers. This will weaken America’s position in the region and create a higher stakes political game. It is easy to see how the Middle Eastern dynamic would substantially change with a number of the large states – perhaps Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq (not to mention the already nuclear Israel) – operating under a nuclear umbrella.

More importantly perhaps, is the risk that such a third-world nuclear arms race would be vastly unsecure. These governments run the risk of ‘losing’ weaponry that could find its way into the hands of non-state actors and terrorists. An increase in the number of countries with active nuclear programs greatly increases the probability that a nuclear warhead ends up in Al-Qaeda’s hands. Simply stated, aspiring entrants to the nuclear club do not have the same institutions and controls, or the stable populations (read Islamists) that the current nuclear powers have.

As most people are well aware of, the current stable system of nuclear deterrence and international cooperation is ill equipped to handle such non-state, nuclear powers.
Nonproliferation is necessary to avoid the inevitable struggles that would occur should non-state actors obtain nuclear weaponry. While the Commission report praises Obama for his actions regarding deterrence, it calls on the President to take further steps to set the nonproliferation agenda. “Good leadership,” it states “requires setting the example.” The report goes as far as to state that if Obama’s open-arms approach to Iran and North Korea “fail[s], we might then have reached a point where the nonproliferation regime is substantially if not fatally injured.”

This is a point that Republicans must seize on. While the Right has been consistent in its criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, these criticisms have to take on more of serious policy discussion, rather than the alarmism that is so often used. Obama is taking too much of risk by recognizing Iran’s and North Korea’s demands. The U.S., alongside Russia, must unequivocally state that the ‘nuclear club’ is closed to new members. If we fail to promote nonproliferation, we will move dangerously close to a complete collapse of the stable global nuclear system.

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