Should Iran have Nuclear Weapons?

February 4, 2014

Should Iran have nuclear weapons? Of course not. That seems simple, doesn’t it?

israeli-nukesThe threat to human beings from nuclear weapons was more on our minds during the Cold War. Now we think of them only occasionally, though the world is still littered with them. The current negotiations between Iran and six world powers–the United States plus Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (the P5+1)–bring such weapons of mass destruction back to our attention.

The aim of the six world powers in the current negotiations is to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Iran’s stated aim is to develop its capabilities to use nuclear energy. Iran denies it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.  Iran currently faces sanctions on its economy while the negotiations proceed, and now the issue has become more partisan with the call from most Republican congressmen (joined by a few Democrats) that the sanctions be stiffened to force the Iranians to come to an agreement. The Obama administration is calling for patience, arguing the current sanctions are sufficient and the negotiations need time.

Through all this the Israeli government has been relentless in declaring that it would be unacceptable for Iran to gain nuclear weapons capability. (Some even fear a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.) John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress on March 3, a move criticized by many. As James Fallows put it, “if there is any precedent for a foreign leader addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress with the obvious intention of criticizing the policy of the current U.S. administration, I haven’t come across it.”

There are important questions here being much discussed in the opinion pages of this country’s newspapers. But I find myself thinking about a question that is never asked in this controversy.

Should anyone have nuclear weapons?

Of the six countries currently negotiating with Iran, five have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France. (Germany does not.) These five nuclear powers have all signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, first enacted in 1968. 189 countries have signed the agreement: all the members of the United Nations with five exceptions: India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Sudan, and Israel.  India and Pakistan did not sign, both sought to develop nuclear weapons, both have succeeded, and both have publicly declared themselves nuclear powers. North Korea has been seeking nuclear weapons capability and may have achieved that. It has publicly declared it has such capabilities.  South Sudan certainly has not.

Israel does not acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons, but nearly every world expert on the question agrees that Israel, too, has nuclear weapons as well as effective ground-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems for these weapons. The United States has never taken any steps to prevent Israel from having nuclear weapons, and has supplied Israel with many of its delivery systems.

Article VI of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons obliges the signatories to disarm, or at least to negotiate in good faith toward that end. (“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”)  At the present time, however, essentially no progress is being made toward such disarmament.

So today, we have five nuclear powers negotiating with Iran to prevent it from having nuclear weapons. The insistence is that Iran not even have the capability to build any weapons even though Iran has signed the non-proliferation agreement and declared it has no intention of building a bomb. At the same time, those five powers are not actively working toward disarmament. And we have Israel, which refused to sign the treaty and has developed nuclear weapons, facing no consequences and now making threats. From this perspective, it is easy to see why Iran feels it is not being accorded a measure of respect. From where they sit, some countries are being treated as trustworthy, and it is being treated as untrustworthy. It is difficult to negotiate under those premises.

I’d feel much better about the Iran negotiations if the five original nuclear powers were working actively on disarmament and insisting that all the other current nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, and Israel) join them in the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Should anyone have nuclear weapons? No. We can’t forget how to make them, but we can destroy the ones we have.  Let’s all join together toward that end.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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