Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Paul Derikx.
In the first decades of the nuclear era, the conventional wisdom beheld that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would set in motion a game of domino’s with adversaries playing along, meaning developing the bomb for their own. In other words: proliferation begets proliferation. Late twentieth and twenty-first century cases, however, show a different pattern in horizontal proliferation. The key factor is not the neighbors acquisition of nuclear weapons per se. The primary security factor leading to the development of a nuclear arsenal in the twenty-first century is the adversaries disparity in conventional military power. Is this, then, Iran’s reason for going nuclear? And what does this mean for the wider region, America’s allies, and the world’s stockpile of nuclear warheads?
It was in 1954, only a few days after the decision for West Germany’s rearmament, the first steps were set in the Élysée, the French presidential palace, starting the development of a nuclear weapon. Not a surprise considering Germany invaded French territory, twice. The same goes for Israel. The 1950’s and ’60’s were perilous times for Israel’s executive politicians, fearing a misbalance in military strength in the immediate future. Not a strange thought when surrounded by countries with way bigger population sizes and therefore demographic advantages, Israel shortly developed successfully a nuclear program.
What, then, of Iran? It was the shah who initiated the nuclear program, triggered by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs (of which he later on showed to be willing to use). But this cannot be the sole reason for Iran’s present day nuclear ambitions, since the US dealt with Saddam, and the second time to wrap it all up. And there it is already. It was the rising military power of the US that set Tehran up to finishing the nuclear program. In 1995, the 5th US Fleet entered the Gulf (being the Gulf in the Gulf Wars), centered around carrier ships, right on the doorsteps of Iran. It is not a surprise the greatest advancements in the Iranian nuclear program were made in the following decades, with an additional speed-up after the 2003 US invasion in Iraq. Acknowledging nearby Israel’s nuclear capabilities, an American fleet at its doorsteps and boots-on-the-ground in then American occupied Iraq and Afghanistan along with military power projection capabilities in Pakistan, Iran had, from their perspective, plenty of reasons to build the bomb.
Presuming Iran would achieve its long wanted nuclear bomb, one should wonder what difference it would make. Not that much, really. Israel already has a nuclear arsenal and is thereby safeguarded against a full-scale war. It is unlikely that other Middle-Eastern states will follow suit. Saudi-Arabia has not that much to fear from Iran’s nearly non-existent power projection capabilities and even if the King wanted a nuclear arsenal, it would not have the know-how to do so. The only difference is that Iran is to some degree would be safeguarded against invasions, which does not mean it gets that much more leverage in international negotiations. It is often assumed a nuclear arsenal gives a state the means to do whatever its regime wants. Yet practice shows otherwise. Neighboring Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal and is still not able to block foreign military actions on its soil and still has to, and does, adhere to international institutions like the IMF.
Would a potential Iranian build-up of a nuclear arsenal add up to the world’s stockpile? Yes, but not significantly. A report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates there are around 17.000 nuclear warheads in today’s world (of which 7.000 are listed to be dismantled by the US and Russia). Interestingly, 4.400 of these are deployed on or near missiles in operational mode, meaning it only takes minutes to launch an attack when the order is given. The global nuclear stockpile has dropped, though, considerably. At its peak in 1986, there were over 60.000 warheads accounted for. Back then and today, some ninety percent of the global stockpile is owned by the United States and Russia. It is there where nuclear power is concentrated. Smaller states, aka Iran, Pakistan and the like, are not able to change the status quo by some nuclear weapon arsenal. The unconventional military capability is therefore easily offset by the world’s super powers.
The real nuclear threat, thus, involves the power brokers of this century. Since the ongoing US pivot to Asia, this is the likely place for a large conflict to develop in this century. An interesting report was released this week by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense, predicting China will have acquired the capabilities to mount an all-out attack on Taiwan by roughly 2020. These capabilities includes over a thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan, a fleet of advanced aircraft capable of reaching the island state without the need of en route refueling, the purchase of amphibious assault ships, and this all combined with the development of multiple missile defense systems to protect the Chinese homeland against retaliatory attacks. Therefore it seems, regarding China’s People’s Liberation Army, the disparity in conventional means should be offset by Taiwan’s ally – the United States. The report issued by the Bulletin of Atomic Researchers shows a steady but significant increase in China’s nuclear arsenal, expected to take the third place in the international raking of nuclear stockpiles from France by 2020, ranked only after the US and Russia. In times of severe budget cuts at the Pentagon, one should be reminded what military, but foremost political worth nuclear stockpiles and capabilities have in international relations.