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.

Of all the lessons to draw from the ignoble end to Muammar Qaddafi's brutal regime in Libya, the one about nuclear weapons proliferation is probably not the first tutorial that comes to mind.

But you can believe it is not lost on countries that feel vulnerable, including Iran. And for the sake of global security, the international community must consider what it's like to be in their shoes.

The lesson is elementary. Eight years ago, Libya agreed to dismantle its infant nuclear program. More than five months ago, NATO began enforcing a no-fly zone in support of Libyan rebels. Would NATO have launched a bombing campaign against Libya if the unpredictable Mr. Qaddafi had possessed nuclear weapons?

Qaddafi's forceful downfall will make acquiring nuclear weapons all the more justifiable to states that feel threatened by outsiders. In turn, that will erode the vision of nonproliferation that held such promise in the post-cold-war era.

The zero-nukes goal promoted by President Obama is underpinned by the expectation that having nuclear weapons for security reasons is obsolete – along with the bipolar world of the cold war.

In reality though, the reason why countries seek nuclear weapons is just as resolute today as it was in the cold war.

Cold-war dynamics at work today

From 1945 to 1991, the preeminent source of security in international affairs was the nuclear bomb. The few nations that openly had credible means of delivery – the United States, the USSR, Britain, France, and China – successfully deterred physical aggression by another state against their homelands.

Their collective experience and the perceived frailties of those states not possessing the bomb eventually created the following narrative: Nuclear weapons provide security to states while the lack of them leaves a country vulnerable.

In this setting, two diametrically opposing trends were born. The first was driven by states that viewed their circumstances as so perilous that the only alleviating factor would be acquiring the bomb.

The second was the goal of states either already possessing nuclear weapons or firmly protected in a larger security organization (e.g., NATO) to prevent the spread of atomic weapons.

To fuse the gap between the "security haves" and "have nots," the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. It encouraged the nuclear countries to provide have-nots with expertise and infrastructure to exploit peaceful nuclear technology. The ultimate goal was full disarmament for all. But the nuclear-weapon states never disarmed while the security circumstances for the nonnuclear states remained. A few countries, namely Israel, India, and Pakistan, stayed out of the NPT to pursue weapons programs of their own. Others decided to flirt with "nuclear latency" – having all the ingredients and infrastructure of making weapons, yet not possession.

After the Soviet Union's demise, the prospect of nuclear disarmament became more hopeful. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and post-apartheid South Africa intellectually challenged the role of nuclear weapons for deterrence. A nescient, reenergized emphasis was placed on international law as the ultimate and legitimate arbiter of state security. Nuclear and nonnuclear states made ambitious but vague pledges to realize the disarmament goal of the NPT. Subsequent Russian and American arms-control agreements and the creation of nuclear-free weapons zones in South America and Africa added to this new cooperative spirit.

Yet creeping beneath the trend toward a "post nuclear" world, were behavioral contradictions initiated by highly industrialized nations. Their actions, perhaps unwittingly, gradually chipped away at the nonproliferation goal.

For various reasons, these nations attacked the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya. That aggression partially, if not fully, materialized by reason of the targets' lack of a nuclear deterrent. At the same time, troublesome nuclear-armed states such as North Korea and Pakistan have not been attacked since they acquired the bomb. They've also garnered multilayered benefits from the international community.

Compare Libya and Pakistan. In 2003, Tripoli agreed to dismantle its fledgling nuclear program, give up its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and halt support for terrorism. In exchange, it was reintegrated into the global political economy. And yet, it was still attacked – a result of its brutal repression of its people in rebellion.

On the other hand, nuclear-armed Pakistan hid the most-wanted terrorist in the world for roughly a decade, while also supporting various regional militant groups and aiding the Taliban. That country has suffered virtually no consequences from the great powers but enjoys US economic and military aid.

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.

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.

Reza Sanati is a graduate fellow in the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD candidate in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.

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