Nuclear Folly

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According
to recent news reports and as hinted in the president’s State of
the Union Address, the neocons who dominate the Bush administration
are gearing up for another pre-emptive military attack, this time
upon Iran. The ostensible reason for such an attack is that the
Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons.

In
fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which regularly
inspects Iran’s nuclear operations, has not found any signs of nuclear
weapons. Although the IAEA has reported that Iran has produced enriched
uranium – which can be used for either civilian or military purposes – such
production has been halted thanks to a November 2004 Iranian agreement
with France, Germany, and Britain. Thus, although it is possible
that Iran might produce nuclear weapons some time in the future,
this is hardly a certainty. Nor is it clear that the Iranian government
has ever planned to produce them.

Ironically,
in the midst of this delicate situation, the Bush administration
is busy dismantling the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
This treaty, signed in 1968 by officials of the United States and
of almost all other countries, obligates non-nuclear nations to
forgo development of nuclear weapons and nuclear nations to take
steps toward nuclear disarmament. The Bush administration reveres
the first obligation and wants to scrap the second.

In
late December 2004, news accounts quoted an administration official
as saying that the final agreement at the NPT review conference
in 2000 – which commits the declared nuclear weapons states to an
"unequivocal undertaking" to abolish nuclear weapons – is
a "simply historical document," which does not reflect
the drastic changes in the world since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Thus, he said, the Bush administration "no longer supports"
all of the thirteen steps toward disarmament outlined in the 2000
agreement and does not view it as "being a road map or binding
guideline or anything like that."

For
those who have followed the Bush administration’s nuclear policy,
this position should come as no great surprise. The administration
has not only abandoned efforts toward negotiating nuclear arms control
and disarmament agreements with other nations, but has withdrawn
the United States from the ABM treaty (signed by President Nixon)
and refused to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban
Treaty (signed by President Clinton).

It
has also championed a program of building new U.S. nuclear weapons,
including so-called "bunker busters" and "mini-nukes,"
and of facilitating the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing. Only
an unexpected revolt in Congress – led by Representatives David Hobson
and Pete Viclosky, the Republican chair and ranking Democrat of
the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee – blocked funding
for the Bush administration’s proposed new nuclear weapons in 2004.
Political analysts expect the administration to make another effort
to secure the funding this year.

For
the Bush administration and its fans, this evasion of U.S. obligations
under the NPT makes perfect sense. The United States, they believe,
is a supremely virtuous nation, and nations with whom it has bad
relations – such as Iran – are "evil." In line with this
belief, the U.S. government has the right to build and use nuclear
weapons, while nations it places on its "enemies" list
do not.

As
might be expected, this assumption does not play nearly as well
among government officials in Iran, who seem unlikely to fulfill
their part of the NPT agreement if U.S. officials flagrantly renege
on theirs. At the very least, the Bush administration is offering
them a convenient justification for a policy of building Iranian
nuclear weapons.

Other
nations have drawn this same conclusion. In the fall of 2004, Helen
Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand, warned: "First and
foremost we need to keep before us the essential bargain that the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty represents. While we will willingly
contribute to non-proliferation and counter-proliferation initiatives,
those initiatives should be promoted alongside initiatives to secure
binding commitments from those who have nuclear weapons which move
us further towards the longer-term goal of nuclear disarmament."

Much
the same point was made in early January 2005 by Mohamed ElBaradei,
the director of the IAEA. Calling upon all countries to commit themselves
to forgo building facilities for uranium enrichment and nuclear
reprocessing for the next five years, ElBaradei added: "We
should not forget the commitment by the weapons states to move toward
nuclear disarmament."

In
fact, ElBaradei’s evenhanded approach to nuclear issues has angered
the Bush administration, which is now working to deny him reappointment
as IAEA director.

The
responsibility of all nations under the NPT will undoubtedly receive
a good deal of discussion at the NPT review conference that will
convene at the United Nations this May. Certainly it will be interesting
to see how the Bush administration explains the inconsistencies
in its nuclear policy.

Unfortunately,
by then we may well have another bloody military confrontation on
our hands. Like the war in Iraq, it will be sold to us on the basis
of the potential threat from a nation possessing weapons of mass
destruction. And, also like the war in Iraq, it will be unnecessary – brought
on by the arrogance and foolishness of the Bush administration.

February
8, 2005

Lawrence
S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present
(Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared on the History News
Network
. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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