01/14/2013 - 05:35

Futility, acceptance, progress

Maryam Javan Shahraki and Selim Can Sazak have conducted quite a debate on Iran's nuclear program. It has been a microcosm of the international debate on the same issue, in which many questions are raised and few are answered. In my view, finger-pointing over Iran has become, and will continue to be, an exercise in futility. It is better, while continuing to seek practical measures toward improved implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to accept certain incontrovertible facts about the dispute.

The Iranian government has been investing resources in its nuclear program for over 25 years, and the program has become symbolic of Tehran's wish to assert its national sovereignty in an increasingly globalized world. It seems highly unlikely at this point that Iran will abandon the work it has done so far toward mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, no matter what other countries demand. And though diplomacy seems the proper path toward resolving the impasse, diplomacy has failed in the past. It is not obvious how it can succeed now.

Tehran should show more willingness to allay international concerns over its nuclear program. Nonetheless, it is unreasonable to impose strict sanctions on Iran for enriching uranium, something it is after all entitled to do under the treaty. Indeed, the immediate objective for each side in the dispute should be to avoid alienating the other. Crippling sanctions only keep Iran's hard-liners entrenched in power; Tehran's duplicity regarding safeguards and inspections only increases international suspicion. Meanwhile, if old enmities are not broken, there is a chance that Iran might withdraw from the treaty, which would aggravate a situation that is already bad. Extending a hand of friendship to Iran is the only viable way to achieve the treaty's goals.

Bad tactics. Iran's nuclear program attracts more attention than any other issue related to the NPT. But another issue -- tactical nuclear weapons -- has just as much potential for undermining the treaty regime if it is not addressed.

The United States possesses about 500 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and nearly 200 of these remain deployed in five European countries. Russia has about 2,000 nonstrategic warheads, though all are said to be in storage. These weapons are now thought to possess minimal military value, but we live in a world where possession of nuclear weapons is seen as instrumental for exercising regional influence and gaining political and economic leverage. Thus, the possession of nonstrategic weapons, regardless of their military value, can easily antagonize a country like Iran.

The Russian and US governments have demonstrated some commitment to disarmament, for instance through New START, but this treaty and other arms control agreements do nothing to reduce stockpiles of nonstrategic weapons. This is unacceptable, as tactical nuclear weapons are highly lethal and present risks such as possible acquisition by terrorists. In addition, the presence of US tactical weapons in Europe runs counter to the NPT, which prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states. The treaty is silent on the issue of tactical nuclear weapons per se, but this silence amounts to a major loophole. Failure to pay specific attention to such a serious issue may prove detrimental to the treaty's survival in years to come.

Withdrawing tactical weapons from Europe would decrease from 14 to nine the number of states with nuclear weapons on their soil. It would lead to increased credibility for the nonproliferation policies of the United States and its NATO allies. Therefore, elimination of tactical weapons would be a highly practical measure to strengthen the treaty and help the nuclear powers build bridges in the future toward nations such as Iran. Most of all, elimination of tactical nuclear weapons would be a concrete step toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.