Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Design and Nuclear Brinkmanship

If the world had any doubts that the genie of advanced nuclear weapons proliferation was out of the bottle, those doubts were removed by a report that the Swiss officials have found blueprints of advanced weapons belonging to the nuclear networks formerly headed by Pakistani nuclear physicist, Dr. A. Q. Khan.  What is not yet known is whether Iran or other countries have purchased that blueprint from the nuclear smuggling network.  The U.S.-led pressure on Iran, the Twenty-First version of “nuclear brinkmanship,” is likely to be further intensified as a result of this new disclosure.

The United States is an old practitioner of nuclear brinkmanship, a term coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  Under this practice of diplomacy, pressure tactics and ambiguous threats to use nuclear weapons–short of firing a nuclear weapon–were used to bring about results to America’s liking.  Its detractors called this exercise pushing a dangerous situation to the brink of disaster.  The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, likened it to a “game of chicken,” whereby one party is forced to “chicken out.”


In a similar situation, the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exercised more of a policy of carrots and sticks than of nuclear brinkmanship against North Korea.  The chief reason for that was a general understanding that Kim Jong Il already possessed nuclear weapons.  In the case of Iran, the nuanced use of carrot and stick is intermittently present, with a constant and unambiguous iteration of the mantra, “all options are on the table.”  That, in essence, is what America’s nuclear brinkmanship against Iran is all about. 


This new report regarding the availability of nuclear weapons design promises an intensification of that brinkmanship.  The chief reason is the fact that the Bush administration’s time clock is ticking.  It seems to be working under self-induced pressure (and constant urging from Israel) to take military actions against Iran before its term runs out.


The latest report about the global availability of nuclear design, even if it has not triggered loud alarm bells, has certainly captured the world’s attention.  The recently discovered blueprints resemble a nuclear weapon developed and tested by Pakistan.  The Pakistani officials maintain that Dr. A. Q. Khan–Pakistan’s “father” of their nuclear weapons–did not have any access to that country’s nuclear design.


However, there is little doubt that blueprints of nuclear weapons have been in the possession of Libya, North Korea, and even Iran.  There is no confusion about the major role played by the so-called “Khan network” of global nuclear smuggling in the sale and dissemination of nuclear know-how.  The least known aspects of that issue are how much the government of Pakistan has been involved in those activities; and, more to the point, how much of that network still maintains access to even more advanced information regarding nuclear weapon designs.


The Pakistani government has been least cooperative in allowing the IAEA–the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency–access to Dr. Khan, who has recently retracted his previous confession of involvement in the proliferation of nuclear weapon know-how, claiming that he was forced to make such statements under pressure from the regime of General Pervez Musharraf.


Pakistan’s major problem related to this issue is a serious lack of credibility.  Dr. Khan’s role in providing North Korea the knowledge of nuclear weapons design has to have at least a tacit endorsement of the government in Islamabad.  One only has to recall how much of the ballistic and cruise missile technology has been transferred from North Korea to Pakistan in the past.  The least Pakistan could have done, in return, was to pass on to the North Koreans the bomb designs and advanced centrifuges.  This type of nuclear quid pro quo has been around for a long time among countries that have mastered nuclear weapons technology. 


The United States lent a helping hand to the U.K. and to France in their emergence as nuclear weapons states in the 1940s and 1950s.  France played a crucial role in the highly secretive nuclear weaponization of Israel in the 1960s.  Israel, in turn, had a clandestine role in the nuclear weaponization of the former apartheid government of South Africa.  Happily, South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons program before handing over political power to its rightful African majority.

The American fear is that Iran has already acquired advanced knowledge of nuclear weaponization and, under appropriate international circumstances, would surprise the world one day by declaring that it possesses nuclear weapons, as North Korea did in February 2005. 

That is one reason the Bush administration has intensified its nuclear brinkmanship on Iran during President George W. Bush’s so-called farewell tour of Europe.  During that tour, the United States let the world know that it has established a bilateral front of nuclear brinkmanship with France against Iran.  For now, the focus of that activity is issuing of further economic sanctions.  However, the threat of the use of force is going to be repeated with purposeful ambiguity.

So, from Iran’s point of view, this new disclosure of dissemination of nuclear weapons design has come at a very inappropriate time. The fact that the technological information about bomb designs significantly shortens the time needed to build the weapons has pretty much nullified the previous intelligence reports that Iran might be ten or more years away from developing nuclear weapons.  What should also be kept in mind is that similar types of estimates were bandied about regarding Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons during the early 1990s.  Then it was found out that Saddam Hussein was considerably closer to developing those weapons than was widely reported.

The general expectations are that the Iranian leaders are not likely to cease and desist their nuclear research program.  It is a matter of conjecture whether the Bush administration will take the decision of limited military action against Iran within the next few weeks or months, thereby forcing its successor to commit strongly to remaining in Iraq.  The advantages for the lone superpower of not blinking against Iran–an important tactic of nuclear brinkmanship of the 1950s–are not in doubt.  The U.S. has an enormous military superiority over Iran.  However, there is no doubt that, if attacked, Iran will launch its asymmetric war against the U.S. troops in Iraq and against Israel, who remains the foremost cheerleader for attacking Iran before Bush’s time in office runs out. 

In the realm of asymmetric warfare, Iran might have some unknown advantages against the lone superpower.  But the exercise of brinkmanship by a nuclear weapons state against a non-nuclear power is certainly not likely to make West Asia a stable region anytime soon.