Sep 22, 2005 | 03:28 GMT

12 mins read

The Value of a Nuclear Program

By George Friedman This was a week of nuclear weapons. The North Koreans seemed to promise that they would abandon their nuclear weapons program, while the Iranians made it clear that they had no intention of abandoning theirs. The confluence of these events causes us to raise a fundamental question rarely addressed: Why would small nations want to spend their national treasure on developing a handful of nuclear weapons that would be difficult to deliver to a target and that could be destroyed by another country — like the United States — almost at will, if the United States chose to use their own enormously more plentiful weapons? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. One of the concerns normally expressed about the North Korean nuclear program is that Pyongyang might one day choose to destroy Tokyo. That is not a trivial concern, but it is not clearly a realistic one. Assume that North Korea developed four or five fission bombs. Assume also that they fired some of those weapons at Tokyo. Obviously, Tokyo would be destroyed. But what would North Korea gain? The most likely outcome — certainly one that the North Koreans would have to assess as the most likely response — would be a massive counterstrike by the United States. The intent would be not only punitive, but would be to destroy any remaining nuclear weapons and capabilities. In this scenario, then, Tokyo would be lost, but so would North Korea. Thus, for the original equation to work, it has to be assumed that the North Koreans are crazy or that the Iranians have reached such a level of religious intensity that the destruction of Tel Aviv would be worth the rain of destruction that would be brought against Iran by Israel's much larger nuclear capability. The standard analysis, therefore, begins with the assumption that nuclear weapons in the hands of smaller nations — particularly North Korea or Iran — are dangerous because these countries have non-rational calculations of their national interests. They are religious fanatics, ideological fanatics or simply nuts. Therefore, the possession of nuclear weapons in their hands poses a tremendous danger. The mere desire to develop nuclear weapons is a sign of instability (among anyone other than large nations who already have them, of course). Before buying into the lunatic theory, let's consider what happened this week. North Korea, for example, took part in a six-power conference — meeting with representatives of South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States. Absent nuclear weapons, North Korea has the intrinsic geopolitical weight of Ethiopia. For it to be noticed by any of these nations, except perhaps South Korea, would require a natural disaster. But here the North Koreans were, hanging with the big dogs, all because they might be in the process of developing a few small nuclear devices — the deliverability and reliability of which were completely unclear. Iran is a much more substantial country than North Korea in every respect. It is not, however, a great power, let alone a superpower. Nevertheless, the United States is focused obsessively on Iran's capabilities, while Germany, France and Britain stand ready to mediate and deliver stern warnings. Russians send messages to the United States via their relations with Iran, while the Chinese buy oil and happily fish in muddy waters. Iran would always have international attention, but certainly not on the order that it receives every time it rattles its nuclear development program. The possession of a nuclear weapons development program has one obvious result: international attention is drawn to the country developing the weapon. It really doesn't matter much how well the country is doing in developing the weapon; it is only necessary that the intent be known and their ability to build the weapon uncertain. The question is, therefore, what the value is of being noticed, when one of the consequences of being noticed might be a pre-emptive nuclear strike. There has been only one pre-emptive strike against a nuclear capability, and that in itself wasn't a nuclear strike — it was Israel's attack against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Other than that, nuclear programs have not been attacked. The reason is simple: Those who might choose to attack are loath to use nuclear weapons. It is not in their interest to break the effective taboo that has been in place since Nagasaki. A conventional strike is uncertain at best. After Iraq, countries have learned to disperse and harden their nuclear programs. Preemptive strikes, barring massive provocation or imminent threat, have simply not been practical or desirable. The normal response by world leaders has been to find levers that are persuasive to the country developing nuclear weapons. Once you get past the "stiff diplomatic note" stage — i.e., hot air — the options are penalties and rewards. There are usually a range of penalties, economic and political. The problem is that — as with all international sanctions — they require unanimity, at least among major powers. Since at least one power invariably finds it in its interest to circumvent the sanctions for political or economic reasons, sanctions usually turn out to be useless. Indeed, sanctions have the mild benefit of making the country involved appear to be the victim of great-power bullying. There is always some value in that. The real benefit occurs, however, when the carrot is used. Since military action is not desired, since stern warnings embodied by U.N. resolutions don't carry as much weight as they might and since sanctions rarely work, all that is left is the carrot. At a certain point, if the United States or some other country becomes convinced that the North Koreans, for example, are really developing a bomb — and simultaneously become convinced that they might, for whatever perverse reason, use it — a game of "Let's Make a Deal" begins. Whether it is money, food, technology, politics or season tickets to the Dallas Cowboys, the discussion usually comes around to a payoff. North Korea, which pioneered this model, learned that in order to carry this out successfully, three things were needed: 1. It was imperative for the world to know North Korea had a secret program under way. A truly secret program would have no value; therefore, it is important to permit international inspections long enough to confirm that you are building a weapon, and then to expel the inspectors in order to frighten everyone around you. 2. It is vital that you adopt a political culture in which foreigners believe that the total annihilation of your country is a matter of monumental indifference to you, so long as you get to destroy part of some other country. At the very least, you must appear crazy enough to raise questions in the minds of foreign diplomats as to whether you might do something crazy. 3. You must never actually do anything really crazy, like make it appear that you are about to launch a nuclear attack with your three weapons. Since you're not really good at this yet, it will take time to move the weapon, load it on a missile or plane, and launch. During that time, someone might conclude that you really have weapons and that you really have lost your mind and nuke you. Don't do anything that actually appears to make you an immediate danger — just create the impression that you are almost posing an immediate danger. It's probably best to spend ten years almost ready to be a threat. Now, this entire strategy rests on one key assumption: that your country is situated in a sufficiently strategic locale that great powers should care whether you have nuclear weapons or not. Otherwise, you might find yourself following the Libyan model — making all the right poker moves and not exciting anyone, because there is nothing really important within reach of your potential weapons. This might also explain why other small countries, such as Argentina and South Africa, simply gave up their pursuit of nuclear programs. In the game of nuclear poker, as in geopolitics, "place" matters. The geographic location of both North Korea and Iran is, however, important, and for the past decade or so, the North Koreans have been giving a clinic on how to extract maximum value from almost having a nuclear weapon and appearing to be nuts. They have gotten money, food, technology. Most of all, they have been treated as the equal of the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. This has tremendous value domestically, in that it legitimizes the regime. It also creates a bargaining situation that not only allows Pyongyang to extract benefits, but achieves the ultimate political goal. That goal is regime survival. With the end of the Cold War, North Korea's survival was in serious jeopardy. It had survived by being of some value to the Soviets or to the Chinese. By the early 1990s, however, North Korea no longer was of value to anyone. The probability of the regime in Pyongyang surviving appeared minimal. But developing and publicizing its nuclear program made North Korea a wild card: It was too dangerous to attack or even to undermine. Its nuclear program was in an uncertain state — and the regime, feeling threatened, might choose to go nuclear. There was, therefore, a consensus that the survival of the North Korean regime was less of a problem than its fall. Which is just the consensus North Korea was after. Iran has learned a great deal from the North Koreans. It has learned that it is extremely important for the world to know it has a nuclear program, and Tehran has been quite content to allow inspectors in — and then jerk them around after they have confirmed everyone's worst fears. The Iranians have learned to display a political culture that forces other nations to believe they are quite capable of using nuclear weapons, even at the price of national catastrophe. They have learned to be extraordinarily cautious in not crossing a line that would bring down a pre-emptive strike. It makes no sense to do what Saddam Hussein did, which was to spend a fortune on a nuclear facility that the Israelis then blew up. The Iranians have used their nuclear program in a far more sophisticated manner than have the North Koreans. The North Koreans engaged in very skillful quid pro quos, with the only complexity being that they just about never kept their word after they got what they wanted. The Iranians are not nearly as concerned about regime survival as the North Koreans. Their regime is going to survive. Iranian leaders are concerned with a range of regional issues, the most important at this moment being Iraq. The Iranian interest in Iraq is profound. Tehran wants to see the creation of an Iraq that, at the very least, poses no threat to Iran — and which would be, at most, an Iranian satellite. The Iranians and Americans are engaged in a dizzyingly complex game in Iraq, and Tehran needs every lever it can find. The nuclear card increases the Iranians' leverage and gives them something with which to bargain. They also managed to skillfully draw in the British, French and Germans as mediators in an effort to drive another wedge between the United States and the Europeans. They have not been fully successful at this, but so long as the ultimate threat is recourse to the U.N. Security Council — where any resolution permitting military action will be vetoed — they have channeled the process in harmless directions. The value of a nuclear program for a small country is not that it provides a military option. It does not. The value is not even in possessing nuclear weapons, which might actually turn out to be too dangerous. The value of a nuclear program is that it exists and is known to exist. That very fact redefines its possessor's place in the international system and provides it with opportunities to extract concessions. So long as the country does not push its position in such a way that anyone is convinced of an imminent threat — or, to put it differently, so long as the line between potential threat and "ready to launch" is never crossed — great powers will sooner make concessions than take risks. In other words, North Korea and Iran are very rationally engaged in appearing to be irrational risk-takers. It is interesting to note that, aside from its pursuit of nuclear weapons, North Korea has taken few strategic risks since the end of the Korean War, while Iran — willing to underwrite any number of covert groups — has been very careful, since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, with its own military adventures. If we forget the rhetoric, these are countries that have prudently managed risks. Possessing a program to develop nuclear weapons is, therefore, part of a prudent portfolio for managing their position in a dangerous world. It only appears to be risky. In practice, it reduces risk by limiting the threats others pose against them and by increasing the willingness of others to make concessions. When playing poker, the cautious player always hides his caution behind a mask of recklessness. That is the prerequisite for bluffing effectively and getting people to call into full houses. The development of nuclear programs — not the weapons themselves — is a useful part of the mask of recklessness. Until, that is, someone calls the bluff — telling North Korea to go develop all the weapons it wants, save that if it deploys a single one on a launcher, it would be nuked. But the North Koreans are betting that that is too much for the United States to push into the pot, as is Iran. They are probably right.

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