Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. Any doubts of that hard fact were all but crushed by the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on the Iranian nuclear program. In that report, the circumstantial evidence is clear: Iranian authorities have prevaricated and fabricated, they have operated secretly, evasively and, some might say cunningly, to gain the time they needed to reach a tipping point where the West can no longer stop their nuclear ambitions. That time is now.
The world’s response, including Canada’s, has been predictable: more recriminatory rhetoric, more sanctions. Both have, time and again, proven useless. But what other option do we have? The thought of a nuclear-capable Iran is frightening, to say the least. It raises the spectre of a new, global, nuclear arms race.
But that race was inevitable the moment Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann discovered in 1938 that bombarding uranium with neutrons produces a powerful effect that would eventually be called nuclear fission. When that process was weaponized, proliferation began, and it hasn’t stopped since.
“The non-proliferation regime, which denies countries access to critical material, makes it more likely that defiant proliferators will develop unsafe arsenals,” a pair of experts at Duke University wrote in an article published in 1996, titled Managing Nuclear Proliferation: Condemn, Strike, or Assist? Peter Feaver and Emerson Niou criticized Western powers for failing to understand that nuclear technology, like all other technologies before it, will eventually go viral, and that the only way to minimize the threat of nuclear Armageddon is to manage proliferation.
Pakistan stands out as a prime example: Once its nuclear program came to light, sanctions were imposed. They did nothing to stop Pakistan’s journey to the nuclear club, which it considered essential to its survival. Ultimately, sanctions and the threat of inspection regimes forced Pakistan’s program further underground, making it possible for the head of the program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, to make connections in the nuclear black-market industry. The notorious Khan network was formed, directly contributing to North Korea’s successful nuclear program.
Another side effect has been a total lack of understanding of Pakistan’s command and control structures for its nuclear arsenal. No one knows how well protected its nuclear bombs are; the world must trust the word of the self-interested and often unpredictable Pakistani military, which insists it has everything under control.
It could have been different. Engaging Pakistan, rather than isolating it, could have proven more fruitful in the long run. Pakistan was going to develop nuclear weapons. (As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani prime minister who launched its nuclear program, famously said in 1965: “Even if we have to eat grass, we will make a nuclear bomb.”) It was inevitable after Pakistani intelligence agencies confirmed that India, Pakistan’s archenemy, had begun its own nuclear program.
It could also have been different in Iran. One of the key arguments made by the pro-sanctions camp is that a nuclear-armed Iran will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the arms race began many years ago, when Israel, Iran’s archenemy, developed its own bomb. The time to intercede was then, not now. Now the time has come to manage, and the only way to manage is to engage.
Engagement can prevent the dreaded domino effect of proliferation in the Middle East. Engagement can also ensure that Iran’s inevitable development of a nuclear device remains safe and contained, that safeguards are put in place to prevent nuclear technology from falling into the hands of terrorists. This is the lesson that must be gleaned from the Pakistani experience: Forcing a nuclear program to operate underground is a gift to black market nuclear profiteers. It is analogous to the U.S.-led war on drugs, which has only benefitted organized crime syndicates. Those syndicates operate with little regard for how the products they sell are used. If terrorists manage to acquire a nuclear device, it will be through these syndicates.
Western leaders must accept that nuclear technology and knowhow is fast becoming globalized. Rather than playing Whac-A-Mole with regimes chasing the nuclear dream, we must focus on removing the incentives that push those regimes to go nuclear. In that sense, the end of nuclear proliferation does not begin in Iran; it begins south of our own border in the U.S. and across the pond in Britain. This is where the hard choices need to be made, right here in our own backyard.
In the meantime, managing a technology that has become accessible to much of the world is the only way to prevent a nuclear holocaust. It may not be the best of worlds, but it is the most prudent.
Adnan Khan is an independent writer and commentator based in Turkey.