Thursday, November 27, 2014

Eric Schlosser - Why we must rid the world of nuclear weapons

Much has been written about the nuclear negotiations with Iran. While diplomacy has received a great deal of attention, one important question too often gets lost in the details: why Iran must not get the bomb. In my view, the answer is quite simple. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would pose a grave threat not only to world peace but to the Iranian people.
Almost 70 years have passed since the destruction of Nagasaki, the last time a nuclear weapon was used against a civilian target. The cold war ended without a nuclear exchange, and the dangers of nuclear terrorism remain speculative, thus far. The fact that a nuclear catastrophe hasn’t occurred since 1945 encourages the belief that because it hasn’t happened, it won’t happen. Or even that it can’t happen. An influential American academic, Kenneth Waltz, considered the proliferation of nuclear weapons to be a good thing; the more countries that obtained them, the better. “Those who like peace should love nuclear weapons,”Waltz argued. “They are the only weapons ever invented that work decisively against their own use.”
Many academics now agree with his contention that nuclear weapons discourage warfare between the states that possess them, stabilise international relations, and encourage world leaders to be more cautious. That argument does, in fact, accurately describe the recent diplomatic history of nuclear weapon states. But it reveals nothing about the future. It’s true – until one day, it isn’t.
Every country that possesses nuclear weapons must contend with their inherent risks. They are the most dangerous machines ever invented, extremely difficult to manage, for reasons both technical and administrative. Like every manmade object, they are imperfect. And so are the people who control them. The US first devised this technology, perfected it, gained more experience with it than any other nation – and yet has come close on numerous occasions to having American cities destroyed accidentally by American nuclear weapons. Political instability in almost half the countries with nuclear weapons has been a potential source of catastrophe. Split-second decision-making has brought the world close to nuclear war more than once and then narrowly averted it.
The Pentagon has long claimed that only 32 serious accidents have occurred with American nuclear weapons. But a document that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act listed more than a thousand accidents involving US nuclear weapons just between the years of 1950 and 1968. Many of those accidents were trivial; others were more likely to produce a full-scale nuclear detonation than some of the accidents on the official list.
Seemingly innocuous things could have led to disaster. A tiny metal nut that came off a screw inside a B-52 bomber created a new electrical pathway, circumventing a safety switch and fully arming four hydrogen bombs. A maintenance technician investigating a faulty intruder alarm at a missile silo pulled the wrong fuse with a screwdriver, caused a short circuit, and blew the warhead off a missile. Four rubber seat cushions inadvertently stowed near a heat vent in the cockpit of a B-52 set the plane on fire, forced the crew to bail out mid-flight, and could have detonated hydrogen bombs at one of America’s most important, top-secret military installations.
Other countries came up with nuclear weapon designs that were vastly less safe. Had Saddam Hussein built nuclear weapons, they might have posed a greater threat to Baghdad than to any of his enemies. “It could go off if a rifle bullet hit it,” a UN inspector said about an Iraqi weapon design. “I wouldn’t want to be around if it fell off the edge of this desk.”
Five years ago Iran was wracked by massive demonstrations; the “green movement” seeking democracy was violently suppressed. Political instability and nuclear weapons are not a good combination. According to Bruno Tertrais, a former official in the French ministry of defence and a proliferation expert, four of the nine countries that now possess nuclear weapons are “known to have undergone severe political crises affecting nuclear security and/or control of use in one way or another”.
recent book edited by Tertrais and Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon official, describes how a group of French generals plotting a coup against President De Gaulle in the spring of 1961 tried to obtain a nuclear device that France was about to test in the Algerian desert. “Refrain from detonating your little bomb,” one of the generals told the commander in charge of the test. “Keep it for us, it will always be useful.” De Gaulle ordered the device to be set off earlier than planned, and the coup was unsuccessful.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, members of the red guards launched a missile with a nuclear warhead on a flight path over populated areas – an extremely risky and perhaps unauthorised launch. For a few days in the summer of 1991, all three “chegets”, the small handheld devices that controlled the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, were in the hands of military officials trying to seize power and overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev. And Pakistan, the nation with the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, has had three military coups since the late 1960s, four prime ministers removed from power since the late 1980s, and an Islamist insurgency determined to topple the government.
Even with the best of intentions and a sincere desire to avoid nuclear war, the complexity of weapons systems, the unreliability of communications systems and human fallibility can precipitate disaster. During the Cuban missile crisis, John F Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev did all they could to avoid a conflict. And yet events beyond their knowledge or control – an American U-2 spy plane that accidentally strayed into Soviet territory, the test of an American ballistic missile without Kennedy’s approval, the delegation of authority for the use of nuclear weapons to Soviet commanders in Cuba and the captains of Soviet submarines – almost started a war that neither leader wanted. On October 27 1962, off the coast of Cuba, when American forces dropped practice depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface, two of the three officers in charge of the sub voted to respond by firing nuclear weapons. They mistakenly believed the submarine was under attack. Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command, refused to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, and the vote to do so had to be unanimous. Arkhipov’s refusal prevented the world’s first nuclear war.
Given Iran’s technical, political and leadership challenges, its pursuit of nuclear weapons seems an invitation to disaster. Moreover, Iran signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1970. Getting the bomb would violate that treaty, encourage other countries to violate it and discourage Israel from ever submitting nuclear facilities to international inspection. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East would endanger every country in the region; the effects of a nuclear detonation would spread without regard to national borders. And possessing nuclear weapons would make Iran the target of other nuclear states.
Early next month, officials from 150 countries meet in Vienna to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and a treaty to ban them. The world was lucky in the 20th century to avoid a nuclear Armageddon. In the 21st century a new international consensus is emerging: nuclear weapons are only useful for killing or terrorising civilians. The number of weapons worldwide must be reduced with the goal of some day reaching zero. A new nuclear arms race, new states possessing nuclear weapons, and a breakdown of the nonproliferation regime are the antithesis of those goals.
And that, among many other reasons, is why Iran must not get the bomb.
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