LONDON — Sixty years ago this month Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the first nuclear bombs. The effects of these bombs on the civilian populations of these cities are a horrific reminder of why all governments need to redouble their efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately the threat of nuclear proliferation has increased rather than diminished, and the nuclear powers have been dilatory in attempting nuclear disarmament.
The rising price of oil and the inadequacy of “green” energy alternatives such as wind turbines, solar energy and tidal power have revived the desirability of developing atomic power. The risks of a nuclear accident can be reduced by careful management and stringent discipline in power plants, but it can never be eliminated. The greatest risk arises from the fact that peaceful uses of atomic power opens the way to fuel-enrichment processes, which, if misused, may lead to the development of atomic weapons. Hence stringent U.N. supervision of the fuel cycle is vital.
The main nuclear powers, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, have been joined by India, Pakistan and Israel. North Korea claims to possess a small number of nuclear warheads, and has declared its intention of going ahead with the development of atomic weapons.
Iran, which received knowhow and equipment from Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, disavows any intention of becoming a nuclear power, but seems determined to keep its options open by working on uranium enrichment. It appears unwilling to make any concession to foreign pressure.
The problem of how to prevent Iran and North Korea from developing atomic weapons and thus setting a bad example for other powers remains the subject of much debate, especially in Washington, where preference for “the stick over the carrot” still seems to prevail. U.S. President George W. Bush says he will not rule out military action against Iran if the Iranian government persists on its present course, but how credible is such a threat? With the U.S. armed forces bogged down in a war of attrition against insurgents in Iraq, it is hard to see how the U.S. could mount an invasion of Iran. Airstrikes are a possibility, but it seems more likely that, if it were decided to take forcible action against Iran, the task of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities would fall to Israel.
Besides the implications of such action for the fight against terrorism, peace in the Middle East and the development of democracy in the area, the likely reluctance of America’s allies in Europe and the Far East to endorse such action must surely make even the most belligerent of “neocons” in Washington think twice before endorsing the use of force against Iran.
If North Korea does possess nuclear weapons, they pose a particular threat to Japan and their use against Japanese targets cannot be ruled out if there were an imminent threat of military action against North Korea. Thought would also have to be given to the possibly disastrous effect that any military action against North Korea would have on U.S. relations with South Korea and China.
These considerations make it more likely that the “stick,” if used, would take the form of economic and other sanctions under the auspices of the United Nations. But it would not be easy to achieve a consensus on sanctions against Iran or North Korea. It is not clear what attitude Russia would take. China might oppose sanctions against Iran, with which it is developing trade relations, and it would not want to take any action against North Korea that might lead to an influx of North Korean refugees into China. The French would not want to upset the Russians or the Chinese.
Even if a consensus on sanctions could be reached, it is doubtful how effective they would be. The most effectively invoked economic sanction would be to deprive a state of oil, but Iran has its own supplies. Sanctions against North Korean shipping might have some effect, but such sanctions would mainly worsen the plight of ordinary people.
All this suggests that the “carrot” must be tried again with greater determination. It will not be easy to persuade Bush that, for now at least, he must give up military options and concentrate on negotiations. The hostility between the U.S. and Iran and North Korea is deep-seated. None of them are inclined to offer compromises that might cause them to lose face, yet a continuing standoff would leave the Iranians and the North Koreans in a position to continue nuclear development.
However unpalatable the two regimes in Iran and North Korea may seem, we must deal with them, and we must try to understand why they may feel threatened. Iran has on one side a nuclear state — Pakistan — that is closely bound to the U.S. in the fight against terrorism, and on other side, Iraq, which now contains large number of U.S. forces. Beyond Iraq lies Israel, which Iran refuses to recognize and treats as its enemy.
North Korea should have even less to fear. Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have clearly no intention of attacking it, and the U.S., however much it vilifies the North, is not going to risk unleashing a nuclear holocaust in the Far East. It is never easy to fathom the intentions of a secretive regime like North Korea, but the leadership’s main aim is presumably survival, and its fears of a U.S. attack are paranoid.
The nuclear powers need to ask themselves whether they are doing enough to achieve nuclear disarmament as they have pledged. The answer has to be “no.” They lay themselves open to charges of hypocrisy and double standards. How can pious platitudes about nuclear disarmament be translated into real measures of disarmament? This will be difficult, but Western politicians need to give this issue a much higher priority.