A troubling lesson from Libya: Don't give up nukes
Qaddafi stopped his nuclear program. Would NATO have bombed if he hadn’t? Now, Iran watches as nonnuclear states are invaded and nuclear ones win favors.
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Despite Western assurances about nonproliferation, the enduring fact is that countries that feel threatened will, at a minimum, consider becoming nuclear-latent, if not outright open possessors of nuclear weapons.Skip to next paragraph
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Neither is this just a matter for a country's elite leaders. The more the US threatens Iran with war rhetoric and levies sanctions, the more the Iranian population wants a uranium enrichment program and, in recent years, to develop nuclear weapons.
The 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review ruled out a nuclear attack against all non-nuclear-weapon states – with the sole exception of Iran. In December 2010, the Charney Research for International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank, found that 71 percent of Iranians want nuclear weapons, up from 52 percent in a similar 2007 poll.
The current trends in geopolitics augur ill for nonproliferation efforts. If states that already feel vulnerable – what about Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, for instance? – also face sanctions or threats of war, they may be compelled to break the nuclear taboo.
Military attacks on nonnuke states
States under duress, such as Iran, are watching. Having witnessed attacks on Libya, Iraq, and Serbia while nuclear-armed countries remain secure, they can't help but gravitate toward nuclear deterrence – though Iran's aggressiveness aggravates regional tensions. This dynamic is even more profound considering that nuclear technology is accessible to many different countries and regions.
The US and other countries that want to move forward with nonproliferation need to understand why states would want the bomb. If fear is driving them, and evidence strongly suggests it is, those fears must be addressed.
The threat or reality of military intervention against nonnuclear states (think also Syria), at times done to dissuade them from acquiring nuclear capability, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Efforts at dialogue, security cooperation, and a renewed commitment to disarmament for all will go a long way toward reviving the nonproliferation argument. Otherwise, that narrative will become obsolete, perhaps dragging the world into a renewed arms race in a more profound and volatile way.