FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Nuclear Fear Factor

by CHARLES PEÑA

Even as the International Atomic Energy Agency is meeting with Iranian officials to discuss increasing the openness of Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant about Tehran’s right to pursue such a program — including uranium enrichment, which would give Iran de facto nuclear weapon capability.

This raises the specter of one of the greatest fears in the post-Sept. 11 world: nuclear terrorism.

Indeed, this was the prospect brandished by President Bush to help gain public support for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. “If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year,” he said. “And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists.”

But how likely is it that a regime with ties to terrorist groups would give them a nuclear weapon?

The conventional wisdom is that if a regime such as Iran acquired a nuclear weapon it could give that weapon to a terrorist group it supports (such as Hezbollah) and that the group would use the weapon against a common foe of the group and the regime (presumably the United States.)

This is the logic of the enemy of my friend is my enemy, which is emotionally appealing and based on the assumption that regimes and terrorist groups hate us for who we are.

But it is deeply flawed.

First and foremost, there is no history of hostile regimes supplying terrorist groups with chemical or biological weapons they have access to, let alone a nuclear weapon.

Saddam was known to support anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups (including Hamas) for years, but he never gave chemical or biological weapons to those groups to use against Israel, a country he hated as much as he hated the United States. The same is true for the mullahs in Tehran.

It is also important to understand that terrorist groups aided by hostile regimes are not completely controlled by those regimes. There is an assumption that a terrorist group would use a nuclear weapon to attack the United States — and that this is the only plausible scenario.

But a nuclear weapon would also give the terrorist group the ability to topple the regime that supplied it, and the regime would have no way to prevent that from happening once the weapon was out of its control.

Moreover, it would be logistically easier for the terrorists to attack the regime that supplied it — rather than trying to clandestinely transfer the weapon to a foreign target like the United States.

Two other factors would affect a regime’s decision to transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists. First, the cost to develop such weapons is significant — several billions of dollars. One has to question whether any regime would make that kind of investment simply to give a weapon away.

Second, once a weapon is in the hands of terrorists, they could use it against any target of their choosing. If that target is not the one approved by the regime, nuclear forensics could be used to trace the weapon back to its source (even without nuclear forensics, the list of suspects will be relatively short).

As a result, the regime would have to worry that a terrorist group would commit an act that would endanger its own survival — especially if U.S. policy is to reserve the right to retaliate against the suspect regime using its vastly superior nuclear arsenal.

Indeed, if deterring U.S.-imposed regime change is one of the primary incentives for certain countries to pursue nuclear weapons, giving them away to terrorists would be counter-productive and more likely to invite the very action the regime seeks to avert.

Overall, a regime would have to have suicidal tendencies to engage in such risky behavior — yet while individual fanatics may sometimes be willing to commit suicide for a cause, prominent political leaders rarely display that characteristic.

So while the logic of the enemy of my friend is my enemy has popular appeal, the reality is that there are clear and significant disincentives for any regime to simply give away a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group.

Thus, although we must be concerned about the prospect of nuclear terrorism, we should also not be mesmerized by rhetoric of smoking guns in the form of mushroom clouds and live in dire fear of it.

CHARLES PEÑA is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, a senior fellow with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books).

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail