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Iran and the Enduring Stockpile

In late July, U.S. presidential hopefuls discussed Iran's uranium enrichment program at a news conference sponsored by the non-profit...

In late July, U.S. presidential hopefuls discussed Iran’s uranium enrichment program at a news conference sponsored by the non-profit organization The Israel Project. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) argued in a written statement that U.S. policy must be "clear, unambiguous, and effective." Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the time for diplomacy is over as "the United Nations acts with contemptible weakness." And in his submitted statement, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) observed, "Allowing Iran—a radical theocracy that supports terrorism … to acquire nuclear weapons is a risk we cannot take." Obama added that while "Iran’s most explicit and intolerable threats are aimed at Israel, its conduct threatens us all."

Iran’s interest in nuclear power goes back several decades, to the 1970s, when Iranian ruler Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was a staunch U.S. ally and Western support for his nuclear ambitions was strong (a group of New England utility companies even promoted Iranian nuclear reactors in the press). This changed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the new regime distancing itself from the United States. When a Russian company undertook work on a light water reactor at Bushehr in 1995, the Islamic Republic of Iran had already become a "rogue state" in the eyes of many Western countries.

Of course, many believe that Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm has now gone beyond power and into weapons manufacture, though Tehran denies it. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chief Mohamed ElBaradei believes that Iranian technicians could make a nuclear bomb within three to eight years. While there is a general consensus in the United States that Iran is defying the IAEA and the UN Security Council, the truth is more complex. In May, the IAEA indicated that the Iranian government had provided accurate information only about declared nuclear materials as per obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and had not suspended uranium enrichment, which does not violate the treaty as long as the enrichment is for civilian nuclear power. Since then, Tehran has allowed resumption of IAEA inspections. But Tehran is in violation of Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to all uranium enrichment. The Security Council also forbade foreign technical and financial aid that "could contribute to" making nuclear material and rockets bearing nuclear warheads.

Iran does not have a bad standing in world opinion. Last September the Non-Aligned Movement, composed of 118 states including all in the Middle East except Israel and Turkey, issued a communiqué crediting Tehran for cooperation with the IAEA and endorsing the "basic and inalienable right" of all states to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes. The statement affirmed the IAEA as "the sole competent authority" for verifying NPT compliance and observed that verifying undeclared nuclear material is "on-going and time-consuming." The statement also endorsed a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East and enjoined Israel to accede to the NPT and IAEA supervision. This July, Oman’s Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said at a U.S.-organized meeting of Arab heads of state that Iran and the Sultanate of Oman "have a common interest … to maintain stability and security in the region." Iran and Oman share the Strait of Hormuz.

President George W. Bush advocates maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and keeping open the possibility of deploying nuclear warheads in conventional conflicts. Not widely appreciated is the fact that current U.S. nuclear war doctrine, built up over the past generation, is at variance with an 11-year old International Court of Justice advisory opinion that "the threat or use" of nuclear weapons violates international and humanitarian law.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, nearly 10,000 warheads existed in the U.S. nuclear arsenal last year, with about 5,500 in active service—the "enduring stockpile." The 2002 Moscow Treaty calls for reducing the enduring stockpile to 2,220 active warheads by 2012, but Linton F. Brooks, former head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, was not forthcoming with precise numbers when he appeared before Congress in 2004. The New York Times quoted him as saying: "The numbers I’m prepared to use are ‘almost in half’ and ‘smallest in several decades.’" The enduring stockpile is aptly named.

The rationale behind needing the stockpile—behind needing a reinvigorated stockpile—is found in CONPLAN 8022. The "operational embodiment" of the U.S. Global Strike program, CONPLAN 8022 is "a new strike plan developed by STRATCOM in coordination with the Air Force and the Navy to provide prompt global strike options to the president with nuclear, conventional, space, and information warfare options," according to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). It is based on the idea that deterrence will falter, hence the need for offensive war-planning. As outlined in public pronouncements and declassified documents collected by the FAS, some military planners now see nuclear warheads as part of the conventional arsenal. During congressional hearings on the 2008 defense authorization bill this summer, the secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State presented a joint statement affirming the "triad of strategic capabilities, composed of non-nuclear and nuclear strike forces."

Some near-nascent Pentagon programs like the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) make sense in terms of Global Strike. RRWs would, in theory, have more longevity than warheads currently in the stockpile, and RNEPs would be able to destroy a wider range of targets. The Pentagon officially cancelled RNEP in 2005, but, according to Jane’s Defence News, work may have continued under another name.

The consistency of U.S. diplomatic opposition to nuclear proliferation is astonishing—as is public complacency about it. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty became defunct after President Bush formally cancelled U.S. participation in mid-2002. In December 2004, the UN General Assembly voted 179-2 for a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty banning further production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The United States and the Republic of Palau entered no-votes and Great Britain and Israel abstained. Even Iran voted yes. The United States also opposes General Assembly resolutions calling for full ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (the United States and Iran signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it).

The hypocrisy does not end there. In spring 2006, after much talk about the tinderbox of South Asia, the White House and congressional leaders simultaneously endorsed a nuclear deal with India and condemned Iran. In a June BBC Radio interview, IAEA Director General ElBaradei called advocates of bombing Iran "new crazies."

Certain U.S. allies support U.S. nuclear war doctrine, and with more than just UN votes. Like the Palau Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the British-ruled atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean hosts U.S. military bases. Neither Washington nor the Crown considers Diego Garcia part of the decade-old African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. The Pentagon keeps a store of nuclear weapons on Diego Garcia, a likely jumping-off point for any attack on Iran, as it was for Afghanistan and Iraq.

Israel has a nuclear arsenal of at least 100 warheads. Unlike Iran, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. In January, the Sunday Times revealed that two Israeli Air Force squadrons await orders to drop bunker-buster bombs on nuclear sites in Iran. In June, The Jerusalem Post reported the launch of the latest Israeli spy satellite. This notwithstanding, observers of the situation, like Iranian-American political scientist Trita Parsi, believe that Israeli strategic planners prefer the game of nuclear deterrence with Tehran—if only because a hot war will have dire consequences for Israeli security.

Anthony Newkirk, a writer based in Kuwait, is a contributor to Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).


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Anthony Newkirk, "Iran and the Enduring Stockpile," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, August 24, 2007).

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