Michael KreponPendulum Swings

There is no such thing as an isolated nuclear-related event. One development feeds into the next, whether positive or negative. The history of the Bomb is about good streaks and bad streaks. Right now, we’re in a bad streak. But this could change with the next development.

There has never been a better ten-year period for rolling back nuclear dangers than from 1987 – 1997. In this decade, the INF Treaty banning entire categories of US and Soviet nuclear weapon delivery vehicles was negotiated, along with two treaties ushering in deep cuts in strategic forces. A new Russian government arrived on the scene that was not in thrall to nuclear weapons. There were steep drawdowns in the two largest nuclear stockpiles. Three states that inherited nuclear weapons after the demise of the Soviet Union voluntarily joined the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT was indefinitely extended, the CTBT was negotiated, and imaginative cooperative threat reduction programs were implemented in the former Soviet Union. Even the pursuit of nuclear abolition seemed possible, with distinguished groups of elders issuing blueprints for nuclear disarmament, such as the 1996 Canberra Commission report. Only the ten-year period between 1963 and 1973 comes within hailing distance to this level of accomplishment.

The pendulum shifted dramatically with the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Then, in depressing succession, the Senate voted not to consent to ratify the CTBT, the harbinger of sharper partisan divides in the United States over nuclear threat reduction. Proliferation challenges became worse in North Korea and Iran. Recidivism grew in Moscow. And the George W. Bush administration waged an NPT-corroding preventive war to take away WMD from Saddam Hussein that weren’t in his possession. Iran was this nightmarish war’s biggest beneficiary.

We may now be at another inflection point. If Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons can be significantly constrained and remains under intrusive monitoring, there might, at the very least, be a respite from negative momentum. If, however, the interim agreement falls apart or is not followed up by more meaningful constraints, other negative consequences will assuredly follow. The next decade of our nuclear future could well ride on this outcome.


  1. SQ (History)

    An interesting perspective as always, Michael!

    I wonder, though, if at least some of what you’re describing isn’t just the clustering of random events, a la the “hot hand” fallacy. Between superpowers, it seems reasonable to suppose that events tend to flow into each other, but in the post-Cold War world?

    Then again, with Iran, there are many neighboring states watching and making their own calculations about how to respond to events.

  2. It's all in the tone you use (History)

    Krepon: “If Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons can be significantly constrained and remains under intrusive monitoring, there might, at the very least, be a respite from negative momentum.”

    Am I the only person who thinks that the above sentence is unnecessarily confrontational in tone?

    That sentence almost sounds like you want to clap some irons on Iran, which is a rather odd concept w.r.t. something that is supposed to involve a “negotiated settlement”.

    The aim should be to get Iran to agree to proposals that give transparency to its nuclear program, and verification of that program’s peaceful intent.

    And, so sorry, but talking about “significant constraints” and “intrusive monitoring” is not the way to go about that.

    Don’t get me wrong: those are a great turn of phrase to use if you want to apply coercion against your opponent i.e. to force him to bend the knee and accept your diktats.

    But they are pretty dreadful phrases if diplomacy is meant to be your tool of choice.

  3. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    David Albright has written an interesting piece about the future of proliferation…


    He pictures a rather dark picture basically saying that the pendulum might swing in one direction more often because technical progress make high-tech goods more available also from non-established sources…

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    “Congress, Obama Admin ‘Duck & Cover’ On Nulcear Modernization”

    By BOB BUTTERWORTH on December 02, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    But in testimony before a supportive congressional subcommittee, the witnesses steered clear of exploring those issues, making only a few brief references to the bomb being part of the American deterrent and an option that some future president might use. The testimony focused instead on supporting a particular option for B61 modernization, emphasizing that the rebuild was key to reducing the variety and total number of weapons in the stockpile and that their preferred approach would save money in the long run. A follow-up letter from the Secretaries of Defense and Energy followed the same line, although a careful reading does suggest how much has to happen before the purported savings and arms reductions come into view.


    • Alan Tomlinson (History)

      One premise of that article is that there are legitimate tactical uses for nuclear weapons. Many would argue that the use of nuclear weapons leads to escalation and therefore they can not be used tactically.

      There may be an argument for deterrence, though I find it sorely wanting, but the argument for tactical use is quite weak indeed.


      Alan Tomlinson

  5. krepon (History)

    Kissinger & Shultz in the Wall Street Journal, 12/3/13:

    “The danger of the present dynamic is that it threatens the outcome of Iran as a threshold nuclear weapons state. If the six-month “freeze” period secured in Geneva is to be something other than a tactical pause on Iran’s march toward a military nuclear capability, Iran’s technical ability to construct a nuclear weapon must be meaningfully curtailed in the next stipulated negotiation through a strategically significant reduction in the number of centrifuges, restrictions on its installation of advanced centrifuges, and a foreclosure of its route toward a plutonium-production capability. Activity must be limited to a plausible civilian program subject to comprehensive monitoring as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    “Any final deal must ensure the world’s ability to detect a move toward a nuclear breakout, lengthen the world’s time to react, and underscore its determination to do so. The preservation of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and the avoidance of a Middle East nuclear-arms race hang in the balance.

    “American diplomacy now has three major tasks: to define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded; to leave open the possibility of a genuinely constructive relationship with Iran; and to design a Middle East policy adjusted to new circumstances.”

    • fyi (History)

      What Kissinger & Schultz desire will not happen.

      If you want that, you best go to war and occupy Iran – if you can.

    • Mohammad (History)

      “Iran’s technical ability […] must be meaningfully curtailed […] through a strategically significant reduction in the number of centrifuges, restrictions on its installation of advanced centrifuges […]. Activity must be limited to a plausible civilian program subject to comprehensive monitoring as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

      Doesn’t this sound ironic, or even contradictory? How can Iran have a “plausibly” useful civilian fuel cycle program without more advanced, numerous centrifuges? I mean, a civilian, commercially viable, industrial program needs a significant installed SWU capacity – much more than current levels – or otherwise, Iran’s uranium enrichment program wouldn’t be “plausible” for civilian uses.

    • Magpie (History)

      Iran won’t – and doesn’t need to – agree to terms that completely eliminate their ability to rush some weapons if they feel they need to. But that’s ok because the US-and-friends don’t need them to do that either.

      It’s in just about everyone’s interests for Iran to stop short of a weapon – but it is strongly in Iran’s interests to remain in sprint range. There are two options for the major players: keep pushing until Iran feels obliged to make a weapon and get the couple-of-decades of diplomatic fallout over with; or just let Iran stay in sprint range indefinitely, and pretend they aren’t.

      There are local actors (KSA / the Sunniverse, and Israel) and hawkish factions everywhere who are happy to see Iran pushed to a nuke (and yes, that is exactly what Israel has been trying to do). That will give them more freedom of action in a range of ways, and the medium term damage to Iran would be of great benefit to them.

      ***Keep in mind: for Iran’s regional rivals, sprintable nukes are about as bad, for them, as actual ones, without all the benefits they’d accrue from their enemy having a real weapon.***

      I’m sure there are plenty of rational folk in the anti-Iran camp who would, if they could snap their fingers and make it happen, dismantle Iran’s entire program, but given only the choice between an almost-nuke and an actual-nuke, they’d much prefer to have Iran with the actual-nuke. THAT opens up a lot of possibilities that the virtual nuke doesn’t.

      But for everyone else – particularly the P5 + 1 – an Iran with actual weapons represents a huge failure. Given that there’s no reason for Iran to agree to a complete dismantling of their ability to sprint a nuke (and that *is* a given – just look hard at the ledger), then the best outcome for most of This Our Planet Earth is for everyone to call it a draw and go home with at least a plausible case to make that they didn’t actually lose.

      Parties with long term plans against Iran will rage the most, but tough: Iran won.

      …and again, in this light, none of the new developments are surprising.

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    Carefully avoided – how will others view the situation wrt Iran.

    Even assuming the best intentions within Iran, we seem to have edged Saudi Arabia into the grey zone. And possibly Egypt, though their government has a lot to internally worry about.

  7. krepon (History)

    George Will in the Washington Post, 12/5/13:

    “… we have two choices, war or containment. Those who prefer the former have an obligation to clearly say why its consequences would be more predictable and less dire than those in the disastrous war with Iraq.”

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Re George Will’s comment –

      Yes, exactly.

      The possible necessity of war with Iran has been clear for some time, but its desirability was never well justified.

      Israel’s position (and Saudi Arabia’s) may be that war is ultimately necessary, but neither of them are seriously communicating that they’re prepared for the consequences.

      A number of US Hawks are clearly *not* thinking about the consequences, or staying entirely silent on them if they are aware of them, which is negligent in terms of public policy debate.

      I think Obama was, but much much preferred peaceful containment if that could be made to work with sufficient confidence.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Will’s opinion piece is here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-f-will-better-a-contained-iran-than-an-all-out-war/2013/12/04/e4dcb1aa-5c4b-11e3-95c2-13623eb2b0e1_story.html Will discusses Pollack’s book and appears to favor not going to war with Iran, but seems to feel that no reasonable deal will result from negotiations, so he sees only two real choices, war or containment.

      A major consequence of going to war with Iran is motivating Iran to acquire an actual bomb, and speeding up the likely time of acquisition. The current odds of Iran going for an actual bomb within five years are perhaps 25%, and maybe an additional 25% within fifty years. Significantly attack Iran, and the odds of Iran acquiring an actual bomb jump to maybe 75% within ten years. War is a self-defeating choice, unless we know definitively that Iran is going for an actual bomb fairly soon, and given the cost of war, maybe not even then.

      So let’s make a deal. If we can get something reasonable that both sides can live with, that is the best solution. This is a third choice, if it can be made to happen, a “virtual bomb” with no easy, fast, or undetectable sprint to an actual bomb. Unlike Will, I would give the deal option better odds, maybe 60%.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Jonah – No, you’re confusing “military strike” and “war”.

      War is what we did to Iraq in 2004 – show up with air, water, and ground forces and depose the government and occupy the country.

      The Israelis used military strikes to deter and defer the Iraqi bomb program (Osirak) and do the same to Syrias’ more recently, we think. That would not work as effectively with a robust program like Iran’s, at that distance.

      Syria and Iraq were deterred by the strike; Iran would be emboldened a la North Korea. We could never stop them from putting another centrifuge assembly down an impractical to bomb hole, or so many fake holes we can’t tell which ones actually have centrifuge sites. We’d never be able to build trust with them afterwards, they’d go for a bomb, and their populace would line up to support that effort.

      The military strike is attractive to a lot of people, because it’s kinetic, it DOES SOMETHING!!!>!#$!, and does not rely on fuzzy things like diplomacy, confidence building, inspections, etc. But it won’t ultimately be effective; it’s ultimately counterproductive if the goal is Iran not having nuclear weapons.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      George, Thanks for the distinction between limited attack and all-out war. Will’s column uses “attack” and “war” interchangeably.

      Even if U.S. intent is a limited strike, Iran’s response may escalate the war substantially. Also, some U.S. military planners may want to pre-empt some of Iran’s more likely responses, making the initial attack more than “limited.” Additionally, I have heard the opinion expressed that the U.S. should either topple the king, or not strike at all.

      The Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq probably accelerated Iraqi covert efforts to acquire a bomb. Moreover, some argue that the reactor was designed “to be unsuitable for making bombs”. This implies that the Israeli attack on Iraq’s reactor was counterproductive, and is a lesson for the present. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Opera

      In the event of a reasonable final agreement, I would estimate the odds of Iran going for an actual bomb within five years as lower, perhaps 10%, and maybe an additional 10% within fifty years. A deal is the best option.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Thought: does Saudi Arabia have anything like a mountainside to dig a nuclear facility into? Or is the whole country easily gotten at by enemy jets trying to take out a Saudi nuclear program?

    —2nd thought: Let us assume someone strike Iranian facilities, and it “works.” I will not define what “works” means, but let us assume that is the view a year later.

    —Does Pakistan draw a horrible lesson? or India draw a horrible lesson? Or Burma’s government?

    • Anjaan (History)

      @ Bradley Laing,
      Any strike or invasion is usually done on a weak nation, that either does not have the capacity to retaliate in any manner, or can not pose a long term security threat and challenge … if this was not so, India and Pakistan would be attacked long long ago … perhaps, Iran strike is also ruled out for the same reason …

  9. Bradley Laing (History)


    Advanced conventional weapons are emerging as an “equal” to atomic arms in their capacity to ward off aggression, underlining a need for Moscow to bolster its focus on their development, Russian President Vladimir Putin told senior officials in comments released last week

  10. Bradley Laing (History)


    WASHINGTON: India has expanded a secret site that could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, a US think tank said, citing satellite images.

    The Institute for Science and International Security, a private group opposed to nuclear proliferation, said India appeared to be finishing a second gas centrifuge facility at its Rare Materials Plant near the southern city of Mysore.

    “This new facility could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons,” the institute said in a report that analyzed an image taken in April.

    • Anjaan (History)

      @ Bradley Laing,
      You got it right on India … the MIRV is under development … Come the nuke sub … and you would perhaps start looking at India with a different set of eyes …

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    —My biggest problem with India getting MIRV technology is the idea that anything India does will be viewed with the same set of eyes. If I, as an individual, am truly biased against someone, everything they do will be considered suspect. Which means honest attempts to reconcile with me will be rejected, along with fake attempts to get me to trust them.

    —If everything the government of India has done since 1998, every new weapon system, is an act of hostility towards Pakistan, then India would have to wait at least en long years before ordinary Pakistani’s forgave them everything they have already done.

    —And trying to convince either the taxpayers of India, or the government of that, would be very difficult.

  12. Bradley Laing (History)

    correction; “…India would have to wait at least ten (10) long years before ordinary Pakistani’s forgave India everything that the government and people of India have already done.”