The first war of 2013—Israel’s attack on Iran—is threatened for “spring or early summer,” the time by which Benjamin Netanyahu (likely to reelected next month) believes that the mullahs will be “nuclear-weapons capable.” The White House may prevail upon him to postpone until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is replaced in June, but his successor as president will just be another proxy for the international criminal who really rules Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
President Obama has elliptically promised that a U.S.-led coalition will prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb. So will next year see the West drift into another bloody Middle East engagement?
The evidence that Iran’s theocratic government wants the bomb is compelling, and it could choose to manufacture several over the next few years. It is a criminal state, given under Khamenei’s rule to killing those who disagree with its politics or religion. He was president in 1988, when death squads entered Iran’s jails to execute some 7,000 Marxist, atheist, and Islamic nonconformists—mainly students who had been imprisoned for protesting or pamphleteering, these victims were buried in mass graves at which their families are still not permitted to mourn. Later, as supreme leader, Khamenei issued orders to assassinate hundreds of the regime’s overseas enemies (Salman Rushdie was one who got away) and to blow up a synagogue and community center in Buenos Aires. In 2009 he unleashed the militia that tortured and killed many Green Movement protesters. The prospect of this merciless mass murderer obtaining nuclear weapons is certainly alarming—but does Israel, with or without U.S. support, have any right to stop him?
Israel and its allies are entitled to attack an enemy in self-defense under Article LI of the U.N. Charter, but only if an attack from that country is “imminent”—meaning that the onslaught must be about to happen. Over Iraq, George W. Bush tried to develop a doctrine of “preemptive self-defense,” namely the right of America to invade any nation that might one day have the weapons to threaten the U.S.—but this doctrine has no place in international law. Iran will not actually have a bomb next year (even if it manages to enrich its uranium to weapons-grade, it will still take time to weaponize and to develop a delivery system), so a strike on its nuclear facilities in 2013 would be flagrantly unlawful.
It would also be irresponsible. Supporters of Israel assume it will be a “surgical strike,” such as the one on Osirak, the Iraqi nuclear facility that Israel bombed in 1981 with few casualties. But Natanz—a prime target in any strike on Iran because it is where most of its centrifuges are whirring to enrich uranium—employs 5,000 workers around the clock. The other potential targets store 371 tons of uranium hexafluoride, so bombing them would set off a toxic cloud that could asphyxiate thousands if the wind were to blow in the wrong direction. The attack would prompt reprisals: rockets on Israel from Hezbollah, closing or mining the Strait of Hormuz, or attacking U.S. naval vessels there. A wider war might follow.
The flaw in the argument for attacking Iran is that nuclear capability does not mean nuclear culpability. While Ahmadinejad is a vicious anti-Semite, Iran has no quarrel with its own Jewish population, and although its leaders are fond of imagining a world without Israel, they are referring to millennialist prophecies about wiping all unbelievers from the map and are not planning to drop a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv. The mullahs are well aware that Israel itself has 200 nukes, some on submarines in the Eastern Mediterranean that would be shot at Tehran in immediate reprisal for any attack. The real danger of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is that the ruling mullahs will be invincible and proliferation will follow throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is already negotiating “off the peg” atom bombs from Pakistan, and the Muslim Brotherhood has long had a policy to obtain nuclear weapons for Egypt. The U.N. has canceled this month’s long-awaited conference in Helsinki on the subject of “a nuclear-free Middle East,” for the very good reason that the Middle East will soon be nuclear-full.
That is not the only region to be troubled by nukes. North Korea is believed to have made 12 bombs so far, each many times more powerful than the device that flattened Hiroshima. Its recent ballistic-rocket test was successful: once it works out how to fit a nuclear warhead and to prevent that warhead from exploding when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, this uncontrollable country and its unpredictable dictator will be able to deliver a nuclear bomb to Los Angeles or Sydney. North Korea may not be as big or as brutal as Iran, but not long ago it sunk a South Korean corvette with the loss of 46 young lives. China—which voted in the Security Council to condemn the latest ballistic test—can no longer exercise control over this impossible state.
The fact is that we are entering a new era of nuclear proliferation, so dangerous that we may soon be nostalgic for the Cold War.
Then, bombs were kept under tight security, and the five nations that possessed them were run by men with children and retirement plans and no wish for Armageddon (when the Cuban missile crisis came, it was solved by a rational deal: the U.S. promised to withdraw its nukes from Turkey in return for Khrushchev pulling his nuclear-tipped rockets out of Cuba). The leaders of North Korea and Iran are not men of the same mold, and Pakistan under any leadership will remain insecure. It already has 110 nukes, some kept at Minhas air-force base, which Islamic jihadists attacked in August. They were beaten back, but there will be a next time: proliferation makes both nuclear accidents and terrorist acquisitions much more likely. The fact that we have not had a bomb dropped in anger since Nagasaki, 67 years ago, seems to have induced a complacency that cannot continue much longer.
Proliferation is here to stay, and President Obama’s promise of “a world without nukes,” which won him the Nobel Prize in 2009, now seems almost fraudulent. Ironically, international law has managed to outlaw the poisoned arrow and the dumdum bullet, the land mine and the cluster bomb, but nuclear weapons have thus far been too hot for it to handle. It is plain that their use is a breach of the law of war: their ionizing radiation cannot distinguish between soldier and civilian, military target and hospital or school. They cause unnecessary and disproportionate suffering, and they pose an existential threat to the environment. Even a limited war—for example, between India (which has 100 nukes) and Pakistan over Kashmir, or between North Korea and the U.S.—would probably change the climate before climate change changes it.
But how is the problem of proliferation to be addressed, short of opportunistic use of force by America and its allies on countries like Iran? Many states (the movement is led by Mexico) plan to make the acquisition of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity by amending the treaty of the International Criminal Court at its review conference in 2016. That would entitle the Security Council to authorize an attack on Iran or any other country outside the nine that already possess nuclear weapons to stop it from assembling a bomb. But this will have to be accompanied by a binding agreement between the nuclear-armed states gradually to reduce the number of nukes in their arsenals to zero and by the establishment of a powerful U.N. inspection agency to replace the toothless IAEA, which cannot inspect suspicious facilities, in Iran or elsewhere, without permission of the suspect state.
Whether our children will live in a world without nukes depends on whether the international community can be made sufficiently fearful of a nuclear war to reach an agreement on gradual but complete disarmament. If there is a silver lining in the mushroom cloud hypothetically hovering over the Middle East, it is that the prospect of merciless mullahs with fingers on nuclear triggers will frighten the world sufficiently to produce and eventually enforce a law to ban the bomb.