Nuclear weapons: The ultimate insurance policy


Iran has good reason for acquiring nuclear weapons, more so than any other state in this world.  Hardly a day has passed in recent years without Israel, or the US, or the UK threatening to use military force against it.


All three are guilty of persistently issuing threats contrary to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, which requires that all UN member states “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” [1]. 


All three should be expelled from the UN under Article 6 of the Charter, which provides for the expulsion of a member which “has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter”.  That’s not going to happen, of course, since two of the miscreants are veto-wielding members of the Security Council (which must recommend any expulsion) and the other is their close ally.  That’s the way the UN system works, or rather doesn’t.


If Israel, or the US, or the UK, believed that Iran possessed even the most rudimentary nuclear weapons system, they would not even threaten to use force against it.


Putin on “humanitarian intervention”

States that possess nuclear weapons are not subject to “humanitarian intervention” by the West in order to put in place a regime of which the West approves.  As Vladimir Putin wrote in RIA Novosti on 27 February 2012, the West’s fondness for armed intervention in sovereign states is a positive encouragement to nuclear proliferation:


“All this fervor around the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea makes one wonder how the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation emerge and who is aggravating them.


“It seems that the more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries may prompt authoritarian (and other) regimes to possess nuclear weapons. If I have the A-bomb in my pocket, nobody will touch me because it's more trouble than it is worth. And those who don't have the bomb might have to sit and wait for ‘humanitarian intervention’.


“Whether we like it or not, foreign interference suggests this train of thought.” [2]


The axis of evil

In his State of the Union address to Congress on 29 January 2002, President George W Bush declared that North Korea, Iran and Iraq “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world” [3].


Knowing that Iraq didn’t possess a nuclear weapons system, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair launched an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime by force.


Knowing that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapons system, Israel and the US and the UK have continuously threatened to use force against it, and may yet actually do so.


However, knowing that North Korea has at least a rudimentary nuclear weapons system, the US has not threatened to use force against it, and can be guaranteed not to do so.  When North Korea exploded a nuclear device in May 2009, after initial condemnation the North Korea was invited to take part in negotiations.


There’s a very important lesson there for states that don’t possess nuclear weapons: if you want to be free from “the threat or use of force”, which is supposed to be prohibited by Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, if at all possible, get yourself at least a rudimentary nuclear weapons system.  The UN system won’t protect you from “the threat or use of force”.  You have a better chance if you possess nuclear weapons.  They are the ultimate weapons of self-defence in that a state that possesses them doesn’t get attacked by other states.


After the US/UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003, North Korea’s foreign ministry declared that "the Iraqi war shows that to allow disarmament through inspections does not help avert a war, but rather sparks it", concluding that "only a tremendous military deterrent force" can prevent attacks on states the US dislikes (see Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 10 April 2003 [4]).  The regime survives today because it acted upon this impeccably logical conclusion.


The UK’s “ultimate insurance policy”

In December 2006, the UK Government published a White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, which made the case for the UK retaining its nuclear weapons and upgrading its Trident submarine-based delivery system.  Paragraph 3-4 of this Paper asserts that the UK must have nuclear weapons


to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means.” [5]


More recently on 18 June 2012, in response to an MP who suggested that nuclear weapons were “completely useless” as a deterrent, UK Minister of Defence, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons:


“I find it extraordinary that anyone can stand up in this House after 65 years of nuclear-armed peace and say that a strategic deterrent does not make people safer. The possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent has ensured this country’s safety. It ensured that we saw off the threat in the cold war and it will ensure our security in the future.” [6]


On the same occasion, Labour MP, Alison Seabeck, echoed Hammond, saying


“In a security landscape of few guarantees, our independent nuclear deterrent provides us with the ultimate insurance policy, strengthens our national security and increases our ability to achieve long-term global security aims.” [6]


If the UK must have its “ultimate insurance policy” even though no state is threatening it, how can it argue against Iran acquiring them, when the UK itself (and the US and Israel) continuously threaten military action against it?  And what chance is there that any of these states abandoning their “ultimate insurance policy”?  Answer: none.


All three of these states that are to the fore in threatening military action against Iran possess nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them to targets in Iran.  What is more the US Nuclear Posture Review [7], published in April 2010 by the Obama administration, specifically permits a first strike nuclear attack against Iran by the US.  It says:


“The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” (p17)


That sentence was written with Iran in mind.  It permits the US to use nuclear weapons against Iran if it is deemed not to be “in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations”.  No doubt the US will reserve unto itself the right to determine which states are not in compliance and therefore eligible for nuclear attack.  At this time, it is a cast iron certainty that Iran is eligible – which is a very good reason for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as soon as possible.


Justification from Barak and Gates

Justification for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons came from an unusual quarter in an interview by Charlie Rose broadcast on PBS television on 15 November 2011 [8].  There asked “wouldn’t you want a nuclear weapon” if you were Iranian, the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak answered: “Probably, probably”.  He justified his reasonable reply as follows:


“I know, I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel.  They have their history of four thousand years.  They look around; they see the Indians are nuclear; the Chinese are nuclear; Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians.  And they look West: what do they see?  Saddam tried it; Bashir Assad tried it; Gaddafi tried it; and Israel allegedly has it.”


At that point, realising the hole he had dug for himself, including ditching Israel’s traditional policy of refusing to admit that it has nuclear weapons, he tried valiantly to portray Iran as “totally different” and unworthy of possessing nuclear weapons. 


Five years earlier, former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates justified Iran acquiring nuclear weapons in a similar manner, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 December 2006 [9].  Gates was questioned (by Senator Lindsey Graham) about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the threat to Israel if it did.  He said that he believed that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and was lying when it said it wasn’t.  However, amazingly, he said that its motivation was self-defence.  Asked by Senator Graham:


“Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?”


he replied:


“I don't know that they would do that, Senator. ... And I think that, while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent.  They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”


This remarkable reply justifies Iran seeking nuclear weapons as a deterrent against other nuclear powers in the region, including Israel and the US (which he admitted has naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons a few miles off the Iranian coast).


Like Barak, Gates acknowledged that Israel has nuclear weapons, even though it has been US policy for a generation not to do so – which has had the double benefit of not undermining Israel’s traditional policy of ambiguity on the issue and of not requiring the US to take a position for or against Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.


The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

Of course, it would be against Iran’s obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) [10] for it to acquire nuclear weapons.  And it hasn’t done so.


The NPT is a bizarre treaty.  Under it, the five states that already possessed nuclear weapons were permitted to sign as “nuclear weapon” states and keep them; the rest had to sign as “non-nuclear-weapon” states and are forbidden from acquiring them.  The latter included Iran, which was one of the original signatories on 1 July 1968, when the Treaty was opened for signature. 


To be precise, a “nuclear-weapon” state is defined in Article IX(3) of the Treaty as follows:


“For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January, 1967.”


Five states – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – passed that test and were eligible to sign the NPT as “nuclear-weapon” states (though China and France didn’t sign until the 1990s).


The NPT was devised by states that possessed nuclear weapons in order to maintain their monopoly over the possession of nuclear weapons and, if at all possible, prevent other states acquiring them.  Their monopoly was written into the NPT itself.  What is more, since amendment to the Treaty requires the approval of


a majority of the votes of all the Parties to the Treaty, including the votes of all nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty”


(to quote Article VIII(2) of the Treaty), their monopoly cannot be taken away without their consent.  In other words, their right under the NPT to possess nuclear weapons is inviolable.


And their right under the NPT cannot be overridden by the UN Security Council, since each of these five powers has a right of veto over its decisions.


It is inconceivable that any of these powers will give up their nuclear weapons unilaterally – because they are the ultimate weapons of self-defence.  It is true that the NPT pays lip service to the notion of all round nuclear disarmament.  Article VI says:


“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 … .”


But that doesn’t require “nuclear-weapon” states to get rid of their nuclear weapons, nor even to negotiate in good faith about getting rid of them, merely to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating … to nuclear disarmament”.


The five states that had nuclear weapons on 1 January 1967 – and were licenced to keep them by the NPT – still possess nuclear weapons more than four decades later and, most likely, will keep them for as long as they exist as states.


India let out of doghouse

189 states are now party to the NPT, 5 as “nuclear-weapon” states and the rest as “non-nuclear-weapon” states.


3 states – India, Israel and Pakistan – refused to sign the NPT and secretly developed nuclear weapons.  Since these states chose to remain outside the NPT, they didn’t breach any treaty obligations by doing so.


It used to be the case that these three states were in the international nuclear doghouse, in the sense that they were unable to purchase nuclear material and equipment from the rest of the world.  This made it difficult for them to expand their civil nuclear programmes.


But, in July 2005, the Bush administration signed the US-India nuclear agreement, an initiative which has lead to India being taken out of the doghouse.  It is now free to engage in international nuclear commerce, while retaining and developing its nuclear weapons.  It has, in effect, become the world’s sixth officially recognised nuclear power (see my article India & Iran: US double standards on nuclear weapons [11]).


Ireland’s small part

As a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of states, Ireland played a small part in India’s elevation.


On 6 September 2008, it consented to the amendment of the NSG Guidelines to make an exception for India and allow India, and India alone, to import nuclear goods without having a “comprehensive” safeguards agreement with the IAEA covering all of its nuclear facilities.  The NSG Guidelines now incorporate one rule for India, and another for other importing states, which is akin to writing an exemption for a named individual into an important piece of domestic legislation.


(Ironically, the NSG came into being in 1974 as a result of India developing, and testing, a nuclear device using plutonium from a reactor imported from Canada for civil purposes).


The NSG operates by consensus and theoretically Ireland could have prevented such an extraordinary anomaly being introduced into its Guidelines.  But, it didn’t.


What is more, the Government pretended that the introduction of this extraordinary anomaly had no significant implications for the NPT.  See, for instance, Foreign Minister, Micheál Martin’s response to a question from Michael D Higgins in Dáil Éireann on 9 October 2008 [12].


India: a natural strategic partner for the US

Senator Barack Obama voted for the legislation required to enact the US-India nuclear agreement.  In July 2008, he explained his actions to the Indian magazine Outlook:


I voted for the US-India nuclear agreement because India is a strong democracy and a natural strategic partner for the US in the 21st century.” [13]


There you have it: the Bush administration, allegedly a determined opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, has rewarded India, a state that has engaged in proliferation to the extent of acquiring around 60 nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.  Obama, an equally determined opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, approves wholeheartedly on the grounds that India is “a natural strategic partner for the US”.


There, Obama was speaking during his election campaign.  In power, his administration has embraced the US-India agreement.  On 23 March 2009, his Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinburg, told a conference on the agreement at the Brookings Institution:


“Both the United States and India have a responsibility to help work, to craft a strengthened NPT regime that fosters safe, affordable nuclear power, to help the globe’s energy and environment needs while assuring against the spread of nuclear weapons.” [14]


Think about it: here the US is saying that India, a state that remained outside the NPT so that it was free to develop nuclear weapons, should help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states.  You couldn’t make it up.


It is not as if India is going to sign the NPT.  Since it isn’t one of the five privileged “nuclear-weapon” states as defined by the NPT, it would have to give up its nuclear weapons and sign as a “non-nuclear-weapon” state.  It is safe to say that India will not do that – but nevertheless the US wants it to help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent other states acquiring nuclear weapons.


Iran a pariah state

By contrast, the US treats Iran as a pariah state because of its nuclear activities.  Unlike India, Iran has been a signatory to the NPT since July 1968, as a “non-nuclear-weapon” state.  Everybody agrees that it doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons.  It says that its uranium enrichment facilities are not for military purposes and the IAEA has found no evidence to the contrary.  Yet Iran has had economic sanctions imposed upon it in order to force it to cease uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities, which are its right under the NPT so long as they are for “peaceful purposes”.  Article IV(1) of the NPT says:


“Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes … .”


Clearly, Iran made the wrong choice in 1968 by signing the NPT.  Had it taken the same route as India (and Israel and Pakistan) and refused to sign, it would have been free to engage in any nuclear activities it liked in secret, including activities for military purposes, without breaking any obligations under the NPT.


If it had kept on the right side of the US, it might have been invited by the US to help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other states.


Withdrawal from NPT

Under Article IX of the NPT, Iran would be within its rights to withdraw from the Treaty and remove the constraints upon it due to NPT membership.  Article IX says:


“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”


By any objective standard, Iran (and other neighbours of Israel) has good grounds for withdrawal, because of the build up over the past 40 years of an Israeli nuclear arsenal directed at them.  There could hardly be a better example of “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty”, which “have jeopardized [their] supreme interests”.


It might not be wise for Iran to withdraw from the NPT at the present time, since it would risk terrible havoc from the US/UK and/or Israel.  But, there is no doubt that such an action would be within Article IX of the NPT.



David Morrison

June 2012