More nukes, more problems

Iran’s move toward nuclear weapons will inexorably drive Middle East powers such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and likely Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, to acquire nuclear weapons.

A nuclear test explosion from April 1954 is shown in this undatelined photo from the US Defense Department (photo credit: REUTERS)
A nuclear test explosion from April 1954 is shown in this undatelined photo from the US Defense Department
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For months the world had been fixated on the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Now that the deal has been concluded, there is little doubt Iran will get nuclear weapons in five to 15 years unless one of two things happens: the US Congress overrides the prospective presidential veto on the deal or Iranian reformers overthrow the triumphant Islamic regime.
What are the likely consequences if neither happens? Iran’s move toward nuclear weapons will inexorably drive Middle East powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and likely Egypt, Turkey and possibly Jordan, to acquire nuclear weapons. What will happen when, together with Iran and Israel, there are as many as six or seven nuclear states in the region? This situation will be fraught with danger. The professionalism of the Arab militaries varies. Iran has said it will turn over its nuclear program to the semi-skilled, poorly educated and ideologically driven Revolutionary Guards. Only one of the seven likely nuclear powers (Israel) actually even has a professional cadre capable of effective control over its nuclear weapons.
Major accidents are bound to occur. Even the sophisticated American military reported 32 significant accidents with nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. Middle East armies are bound to provoke more frightening and even deadly nuclear events.
Even worse, Middle East nuclear cadres likely will, as the more professional Soviet rocket cadres did in the famous 1983 incident, misread their screens and erroneously conclude that they are under attack. Middle East rocket bases, unlike in the Cold War, are not thousands of miles apart but often hundreds of miles apart. It would take Iranian missiles only 11 minutes to reach Tel Aviv.
There will be scant time to correct any mistakes in reading the situation.
Rather than the liquid fuel that took hours to prepare rockets to fire in the 1950s, solid-state fuel today allows rockets to be fired in a matter of minutes. Middle Eastern rocket cadres, like their Soviet compatriots during the Cuban missile crisis, likely will have permission to fire if they think, even mistakenly, that they are under attack.
The problems go beyond accidents. Once Iran has hundreds of nuclear weapons, it may be tempted to try to destroy Israel. Israel is tiny (~20,000 and close by, with only three major cities.
Nuclear explosions over Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem would devastate much of Israel.
Iran and North Korea in five to 15 years are expected to have ICBMs and to probably have miniaturized their nuclear weapons. Iranian nukes would be able to hit the East Coast of the United States while North Korean nukes could hit the West Coast.
Is any of this really likely? Rationally, no.
Yet the level of irrationality in decision-making in radical regimes does not make it unlikely. Hitler, despite the advice of senior German commanders and the defeat in World War I, launched World War II, which took 60 million lives. Imperial Japan, with a GDP less than 20 percent of American GDP, attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Nor do we often take seriously the danger posed by radical movements in power.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in October, 1917, the we were assured by a major American newspaper that the “Lenine-Trotsky coup [sic]” would last only a brief time.
But the Bolsheviks ruled Russia for 74 years, and caused the death of tens of millions of victims. No one took Hitler and his anti-Semitic and nationalist rantings seriously when he was jailed in the Beer-Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. Yet 10 years later he was chancellor of Germany and soon set Europe on fire.
The xenophobic, extremist ideology of the Khmer Rouge was largely ignored until it took power and slaughtered two million Cambodians in the late 1970s.
Thus, we ignore at our peril what the radical Islamic fundamentalist leaders in Tehran believe. The former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani said in 2001 that destroying Israel might be worth the “small sacrifice” of 15 million Iranian deaths. The Grand Ayatollah’s chief adviser recently asserted that Iran’s goal is to re-create the vast Persian empire, with its capital in Baghdad, and deaths in the US and Israel.
The likely nuclearization of the Middle East recalls the famous adage of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The author is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.