The Nuclear Question

Mohamed Zeeshan I Geopolitics I Commentary I October 23rd, 2013

This year's United Nations General Assembly session saw much fanfare after President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani got together to negotiate over Iran's nuclear programme. Stung by Western sanctions, Iran has limped along through time with former President Ahmedinejad losing office to a presumably more moderate leader.

Only a few days into becoming the President-elect, Hassan Rohani went on record saying it is possible for Iran to strike a deal with the rest of the world which would allow it to continue enriching uranium, without producing a nuclear weapon. The statement was crucial, coming as it does after the Western world's great hopes of resolving the stalemate. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had this to say: "If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation's right to enrichment, and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency."

If we were to take the Ayatollah's words on face value, we would think that's fair. Every nation ought to have the right to energy self-sufficiency. But the trouble with nuclear energy is that there is a seemingly thin line between 'civilian purposes' and 'military arsenal strengthening'. To produce electricity, one needs a 5% enrichment of uranium. To produce a bomb, one needs nearly 90%. In Iran's case, it is widely believed that there is enough uranium in Tehran to produce a bomb, if that were the desire. Not many trust that Iran shall refrain from climbing that ladder. Yet, the Ayatollah promised that he will allow "supervision" of the IAEA.

The question worth asking is: what in the world is the problem with allowing countries like Iran to build a nuclear weapon?

It's a blasphemous question to ask, indeed. When the U.S. government 'naively' decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs to end the World War II, the world was aghast at the power of this mysterious military weapon. The effects of the incident continue to haunt the Japanese generations later, with gene mutations being passed down. During the Cold War period, the Soviets used the development of nuclear weaponry to threaten the Americans. The Americans repaid in kind and there was a race for armament which horrified the world, leading Pandit Nehru and his friends to set up the Non-Aligned Movement. The rest is history. However, wouldn't it be worthwhile asking if the Cold War would have turned Hot had it not been for the deterrence of nuclear armament?

Similar situations exist in South Asia - the boiling cauldron of violent activity for over half a century past. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear armament, as does China. Yet, despite repeated ceasefire violations along the border, continued cross-border infiltration and even a large-scale attack on Mumbai perpetrated by militants holed up in Pakistan, the two nations haven't seen war since 1999. India and China have had a number of skirmishes over border territories, including a recent infiltration by the PLA into what is regarded as Indian soil. Yet, the two powers haven't been to war since way back in 1962! Korea, on the other hand, is currently on tenterhooks with the North repeatedly threatening to wage war on the South. Interestingly, while North Korea possesses nuclear armament, South Korea doesn't. So Kim might not be joking when he says he wants to attack the South!

My arguments are not extended with the intention of supporting nuclear armament. However, in the eyes of the Iranian people - who are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty - it seems fair that when neighboring adversary Israel possess nuclear weaponry (or so it is believed), they deserve it too. Inequality breeds mistrust. The fact that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with nuclear weaponry seems uneasy to its neighbors. The fact that Israel is a Jewish state surrounded by Arab territory further sours the situation. The fact that Israel's Prime Minister constantly threatens to blow up Iranian nuclear facility further pricks Tehran.

It seems, therefore, that the existing international nuclear armament law under the NPT is flawed in that it allows - in fact authorizes - certain nations to possess nuclear weaponry while denying the same right to others. It also allows these super nations to decide who ought to possess nuclear weaponry and who ought not to. In an ideal world, all nations must be equal and therefore, all nations must be accorded the same rights.

However, the trouble with permitting the possession of nuclear weaponry to all and sundry is the fear that it may end up in the wrong hands. There is a constant fear in New Delhi that the increasing infiltration of the Taliban into Pakistan will put Pakistan's nuclear weaponry into the hands of "trigger-happy terrorists" who will then use them on India. Israel has similar concerns of a nuclear-armed Iran, although they also suspect trigger-happy usage on the part of the establishment itself. And with the wave of instability sweeping across the Middle East with the Arab Spring, the threat looms larger.

Therefore, although inequality breeds mistrust, and mistrust breeds war, the world in its present state cannot allow nuclear armament to all and sundry. However, if everyone can't have nuclear weaponry, perhaps the better alternative would be that everyone is denied nuclear weaponry, including the NPT nuclear-weapon states. The production of nuclear energy must be internationally centralized rather than localized to the nation in possession of nuclear energy resources. The nation in possession of the resource may sell its material to the international institution, which will overlook the production of electricity therefrom. That would allow better monitoring of the use of uranium, preventing the production of the dreaded atom bomb. Meanwhile, the great powers of earth must denounce their nuclear weaponry, perhaps by destroying them. That would take great willpower from the NPT nuclear-weapon states. But it's the best bet that mankind has for a better world.