The Real Importance of North Korean and Iranian Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons

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Professor Jonathan Adelman

All of the extensive talks and negotiations in the last decade and two over North Korea and Iran getting nuclear weapons have missed an important point. The discussions have shown that the Western policy, led by the United States, of negotiation with these two would be (In the case of Iran) or already has been (in the case of North Korea) a serious mistake. It has shown that allowing these countries to have (North Korea) or soon gain nuclear weapons (Iran) poses a major threat to the Middle East and East Asia respectively.

But, a point that is frequently missed, is to ask how the success of the Iranians and North Koreans in moving over decades towards nuclear weapons will now encourage other Third World states to acquire such weapons. We begin by examining those countries that have nuclear weapons already. Most of them (United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China and India and Israel) are or have been historically First World powers either militarily or politically. Only Pakistan would be neither a major political or military power but is a significant middle ranging power in long term conflict with nuclear India. So too is Israel in conflict with Iran and its Middle East allies.

Their nuclear arsenals have developed over decades. The United States and Russia, emerging from victories in World War II as superpowers, both developed approximately 7,000 nuclear powers in the later 1940s. Significant middle range powers Great Britain, which developed over 200 nuclear weapons in the 1950s, and France obtained 300 nuclear weapons by 1960. Rising Third World countries China (270 nuclear weapons) in 1964 and India (115 nuclear weapons) in 1974 developed nuclear weapons. India’s move led its enemy Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons in 1985. Israel, possibly with foreign help, developed its nuclear arsenal of 80-200 nuclear weapons in the 1960s.

Let’s look at more than a dozen other countries that began to work on nuclear weapons but then took a different path. They fall into four categories.

First, over half of these countries—Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Brazil, Algeria and Argentina—started down the nuclear path and then gave up. All seven (save for Algeria) were essentially pro-Western countries. Their acquiring nuclear weapons would have had local significance but did not threaten the international political order. Also, their decisions caused them to leave behind the nuclear path in the 1960s (Sweden), 1970s (Taiwan, Brazil, South Korea ), 1980s (Argentina, Algeria) and 1990s (South Africa). In South Africa’s case they already had a few nuclear weapons but gave up their pursuit for local political reasons.

Second, three of these countries had significant nuclear power from the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 —Belarus (81 nuclear weapons), Kazakhstan (1,400 nuclear weapons) and Ukraine (5,000 nuclear weapons).All three in the mid 1990s gave up their nuclear weapons under strong Russia pressure and lesser opposition from other major powers.

Third two nuclear powers—Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007)—had their programs abruptly stopped because of Israel bombing of their nuclear facilities. The Israelis felt the need to do this from some unusual factors. They felt extremely vulnerable from the tiny size of Israel (8,000 square miles), the width from Tel Aviv to Haifa of as little as nine miles and the concentration of most Israelis in only three metro areas (Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem). Also, it worked in stopping the two countries near to Israel from developing nuclear weapons.

Fourth, and finally, Iran is moving close to having nuclear weapons while North Korea already has them. Both are highly authoritarian anti-American countries which the United States has tried to propitiate over a number of years. Thus, they don’t fall into the usual categories and their success will encourage other authoritarian anti-American countries to gain nuclear weapons. They could also be encouraged by a simple fact that this could allow dictatorships to survive despite the great differences between them and the West. They are very aware that the overthrow of Middle East dictators Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Muammar Qadaffi (Libya) came in countries that lacked the ultimate deterrence of having nuclear weapons.

In short, success by authoritarian Iran and North Korea could also leave to a number of other such countries emulating them by going down the nuclear path to preserve their anti-West status.