Nuclear weapons are possessed by at least nine countries, posing a grave danger to humanity; the more countries the greater the danger. Uncontrollable proliferation is a real danger with one country threatening to start a political chain reaction: Iran. Although it claims to be interested only in peaceful use, power generation, there is good reason to distrust it. What is likely more dangerous is its example inspiring other countries thus many having nuclear weapons and then disaster. What is the situation?
For technical details see the article The gas centrifuge and nuclear weapons proliferation, by Houston G. Wood, Alexander Glaser and R. Scott Kemp, Physics Today, Sept. 2008, pp. 40--45, with physics background in the book by R. Mirman, Our Almost Impossible Universe: Why the laws of nature make the existence of humans extraordinarily unlikely (2006). A more complete discussion is in randomabsurdities.wordpress.com.
What can be done? There are technical solutions but these require the acquiescence of the country. It isn't difficult to get uranium or enrich it if a country, like Iran, is determined to. The problem is not technical but political and psychological.
What are the dangers of Iran developing nuclear weapons? An unlikely one is an attack on Israel. The US has made it clear, and should emphasize strongly and explicitly again, that it would react to such an attack. An attack would lead to massive destruction in Iran. Its leaders are evil but not insane. However possession of a nuclear weapon would give Iran great prestige and a psychological and domestic boost for its leaders (which is why it is desirable) and the prestige can be used to cause much trouble (far greater than it has been doing). Might it help Syria gain nuclear weapons? That is unclear but possible, and quite dangerous. Would the many unstable states want them if Iran, which is not trusted, had them? How about Sudan whose leader has been charged with war crimes? Might the dangerously unstable Pakistan be more willing to use such weapons, or sell them again? Would Hugo Chavez want them? If Venezuela had them what about Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico? But if they had them, what about ...? Of course terrorists would love to get nuclear weapons, and seem to be trying. That would be much easier if they were widely distributed.
Might we try to destroy Iran's nuclear complex militarily, and easily? Many people thought it would be easy to remove Saddam Hussein, and it was. Are we happy with the consequences? An attack on Iran would lead to far more, and far more serious, terrorism. And it would vastly damage US prestige, thus power, with very serious consequences. It is not a realistic option.
What can be done? In this election year what do the candidates say? The details of their proposals are unimportant, but the thrust of their thinking is clear, and different. John McCain certainly recognizes the dangers and believes in increasing pressure on Iran. While that could be useful it is highly doubtful that such alone would be effective and likely be counterproductive. It is essential to realize that one of the most powerful motivators is pride and prestige. People will accept severe punishment rather than give these up. Pressure, useful if carefully done as part of a larger package, can make people unreasonably difficult, impossible, if it undermines their pride. This is true of everyone, starting with children.
Obama also recognizes the threat Iran poses. He does not emphasize the non-proliferation problem here but does in broader terms, and it is much broader. He also stresses diplomacy and willingness to talk to people. The attitudes of Obama and McCain, not the less important specific details, are clear. McCain believes in pressure, essentially exclusively. Obama includes pressure as part of a strategy, but emphasizes talking and diplomacy, and involvement of other countries, who have much at stake.
Psychologically being willing to talk to people, showing respect for them, is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than pressuring them and showing contempt (the Bush-McCain world view tends, often strongly, to be contemptuous of others). Often a combination of pressure and respectful discussion (which most accords with Obama's outlook) is best. It requires understanding, knowledge and skill, these so lacking under Bush and also McCain, one reason he emphasizes pressure.
Consider the Iranian problem a broader context. We do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Do we want Saudi Arabia to? Egypt? Jordan, Brazil, ...? As these become more widespread they will become even more widespread. Stopping proliferation is essential. If not catastrophe becomes more likely. If all nations were to forsake these would Iran? If more get them would Iran more likely do so? Iran is part of a larger problem, making it more difficult to deal with, but easier if the whole problem was.
While hopefully we can move to a world free of nuclear weapons we cannot have a nuclear-free world. The need for nuclear power is too great and it is already too widespread. The problem then is to have nuclear power while making it illicit to have nuclear weapons, increasing pressure to prevent that, including moral pressure which would increase if more nations, including the US, were to forsake such weapons.
Neither candidate has discussed this. Perhaps this will result in the question being raised. It is extremely important.
Most important is attitude. Their attitudes are clear. John McCain has the same as Bush, perhaps not as extreme. That of Obama and Biden is very different. Bush's attitude is that we are the most powerful nation in the world (or was when he took office) thus can do things that others are not allowed to. "We can ..., but you must not." Of course this does not work, nor could anyone expect it to (except for those immersed in fantasies). And we can't have the power to enforce it. Thus we have no alternative but to lead, and can only lead by example.
International control of nuclear power is necessary, including ours. Psychologically this is very difficult. However irrational the opposition, however much opposition threatens our own survival, it is psychologically almost impossible to accept. Considering that we see why it is so difficult to get Iran to give up its nuclear programs.
Yet we must to avoid disaster. This requires a long difficult process of education. Here we attempt to add to that, but very much needs to be done. Survival might be at stake.
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