In 1993, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, former Chief of the Indian General Staff, published an account of the simmering military tensions between India and Pakistan. Reflecting on the first Persian Gulf War, two years earlier, he concluded that its main lesson was “Never fight the United States without nuclear weapons.” The remark nicely catches the military and political fears of countries like Libya, Pakistan and Iran and their related hope that by securing nuclear arsenals they could take a first step, however transient, out of the shadow of American power.
Ten years after General Sundarji’s remark, the military analyst Phillip Bobbitt warned that modern technology had ushered in an age of low-cost weapons of mass destruction “so deadly relative to their size and cost that they can bypass even the most sophisticated attempts at defence by attrition.” Since these weapons could be used in clandestine operations they presented the possibility of plausibly deniable military strikes in which the “strategy of deterrence [was] rendered inoperable.”
It is within this context that the now infamous letter signed by 47 Republican senators in order to scuttle US talks with Iran should be understood. While the letter unquestionably marks a new low in the dysfunctions of American democracy, it is also clear that its authors genuinely felt that concessions to Tehran would set back previous efforts at nonproliferation, perhaps irretrievably, and diminish what little remains of the established nuclear nations’ powers of “deterrence” or “compellance” (a neologism for the coercive use of nuclear power).
The GOP Senators’ letter follows an alarmist speech to the US Congress by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on March 3. Netanyahu warned that stop-gap measures, like those the Obama administration has been pursuing with Tehran, would convey weakness and clear Iran’s “path to the bomb.” At best this argument is incomplete, for by undermining the prospect of any agreement whatsoever, Netanyahu and his American supporters are choosing to leave current regional tensions intact, a situation that is no less likely to produce a nuclear Iran.
More to the point, the first credible threat of a nuclear confrontation will probably surface elsewhere. In the last eight years Russia has increased its military budget by more than fifty per cent, at least a third of which has been used to beef up its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan has added scores of weapons to stockpile, even though it remains hopelessly overmatched by India’s arsenal. China is modernizing its weapons, and making them more mobile. There are even suspicions that North Korea is adding a new warhead to its small but terrifying stockpile each year. Furthermore, Pyongyang reportedly continues to seek missile technology that would allow it to deliver its weapons to the west coast of the US.
Each of these countries presents nuclear threats no less nightmarish than a nuclear Iran. Russia is particularly frightening. As a recent Economist editorial points out, “Mr Putin’s speeches contain veiled nuclear threats [and] Dmitry Kiselev, one of the Kremlin’s mouthpieces, has declared with relish that Russian nuclear forces could turn America into ‘radioactive ash.’”
Given the complexity of the scenarios unfolding in at least half a dozen countries — few of them well-disposed to US interests — the Republican letter to Tehran is a remarkable act of brinksmanship. Not only has it upstaged its own government’s bona fide attempts to reduce tensions in a volatile part of the world, it has prompted an unanticipated domestic backlash, with some of the signatories being criticised as “traitors.”
At the end of the day these short-term political squabbles will matter little if nuclear nonproliferation loses its currency as a concerted international policy. But unless the partisanship that has soured US politics throughout the Obama presidency can be set aside, and the government allowed to pursue talks without being blindsided by political rivals, the absence of a coherent approach will likely mean that the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran, and the unstable arsenals possessed by North Korea and Pakistan, will remain a clear and present danger.