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Herbert London: Strategic Stability In The Second Nuclear Age

The negotiations in Vienna to restrict or prevent Iran from enriching sufficient fissile material to build nuclear weapons, raises the specter of yet a new round in what some have described as “the second nuclear age.” For the uninitiated, the first nuclear age was the period in the Cold War when the U.S. and allies confronted the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. The second nuclear age is defined by the multiplicity of nuclear powers linked together by varying levels of cooperation and conflict.

Although the Soviet Union and the United States had tense and hostile moments, they did reach some accord for maintaining strategic stability. However, in the second nuclear age, deterrence involving threats from two or more potential adversaries is complicated. Actions of self-defense by nation one against nation two, may be threatening to nation three. Furthermore, non-nuclear technologies such as missile defense, cyber-attacks and precision weapons could challenge strategic balance.

Hence, there is a need to carve out a unique and unalterable restraint mechanism among nuclear powers to avoid endangering stability; what I have described as “a safe zone” to reduce the risk of deliberate, accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

At the moment five nuclear powers, the U.S., China, Russia, France and England, maintain an uneasy, but recognized regimen under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty with India and Pakistan included in the forum. Clearly North Korea is an outlier and Israel is an ambiguous supporter. But despite tensions on the foreign policy front among the Big Seven, equilibrium, however shaky at times, has held. Surely this fragile system needs buttressing with transparency and confidence boosting measures.

The fear is that by adding Iran to the mix, as the leading state sponsor of terror, not only is the status quo unsettled, it means that a nation outside the command, control and communication network that forestalls break-out and possible deployment, will now be in a position to alter the fragile deterrence mechanisms on the world stage. Moreover, recognizing the stated motives of Iranian leaders, a P5+1 deal that gives Iran a green light for further uranium enrichment and the likelihood of nuclear weapons could trigger a cascading desire for nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.

Fierce low intensity conflicts such as the Indian Pakistani dispute over Kashmir could escalate into the strategic realm, but thusfar deterrence has worked. Whether it will continue to work is dependent to some degree, on restraining Iranian nuclear ambitions. Can an Iran with nuclear weapons or simply fissile material be counted on to maintain nuclear stability?

Multilateral participation in the maintenance of stability is essential. But an unreliable nuclear power assuming its own rules and motivated by theological or imperial goals could set in motion a nuclear exchange with catastrophic consequences for mankind. It is in everyone’s interest to maintain a vigilant balance; yet a nation inspired by terror has a distinct advantage if it strikes first and can withstand retaliation. This is the Iran dilemma. Can the U.S. and other nuclear nations bring Iran into a community in which strategic balance trumps regional hostilities? Will Iran foster confidence by avoiding “breakout”?

Answers to these questions are mystifying, but without answers the world will be entering a long, dark and dangerous tunnel of uncertainty.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries atwww.londoncenter.org


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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