Eliminate Nuclear Loopholes
April 14, 2010
By Shane Maddock
Special To The Tampa Tribune
President Obama's recent nuclear policy initiatives deserve praise, but they do not go far enough.
The cuts in the U.S. strategic arsenal were long overdue, and the promise to abandon nuclear threats against countries in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should have been issued at the time of that treaty's negotiation in 1968. But the president went astray when he exempted North Korea and Iran from his nuclear no-first-use pledge.
By promising not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, even when a state might have biological and chemical weapons, Obama reversed George W. Bush's policy that threatened nuclear attacks against any and all rogue states. The new policy undercuts claims that nuclear programs in these states are necessary to guard against potential U.S. attacks. But the exemption of North Korea and Iran mutes its effects precisely where it could do the most good.
While including the two most prominent rogues in the no-first-use pledge would surely lead domestic critics to squawk that Obama was endangering U.S. security, the facts do not support such claims. The United States has by far the largest and most powerful military in the world, even without considering its nuclear arsenal.
The Pentagon's budget accounts for 41.5 percent of global military spending in any year. Washington spends over $600 billion on its armaments while Iran spends $6 billion. Even adjusting for the size of their respective economies, the United States spends 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense while Iran spends 2.9 percent.
The disparity looms even larger when one brings America's major ally in the region, Israel, into the equation. Tel Aviv spends $12 billion on its military, comprising 8.6 percent of its gross domestic product.
Iran simply cannot compete with American and Israeli conventional military prowess. That should provide sufficient deterrent to any Iranian military action, making nuclear threats unnecessary.
In any case, the benefits of including Iran in a no-first-use pledge far outweigh the potential domestic political snags or limited security risks. Such a change would strengthen the hand of the Iranian Green Movement that seeks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's removal from power and democratic reforms. Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies would be exposed as a serious threat to Iran's national interest and increase chances for his ouster.
Hopes that Green Movement's ascent to power in Iran would change its nuclear stance are not just wishful thinking. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, is a prominent leader within the Green Movement. While president, he proved much more eager to reach out to the West and forge an agreement on limiting Iranian nuclear programs. But Bush administration military threats and inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" undercut Khatami and paved the way for Ahmadinejad's elevation to the presidency in 2005.
Even if removing the exceptions from the no-first-use pledge fails to change the political environment in Iran, the United States would still reap benefits. Washington could not be accused of bullying Tehran, and Iran would be exposed as the main obstacle to stability in the region. Obama would then have a stronger hand to play when he pushes for a united front against Iran at the Washington nuclear summit that began Monday and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference next month.
Ending the threat of a nuclear Iran would aid in fostering regional stability and move the world closer both to a nuclear-free Middle East and the president's ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world. A necessary first step is eliminating the loopholes in America's no-first-use policy.
Shane Maddock is a professor of history at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and the author of the new book Nuclear Apartheid (UNC Press).
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