Hard Reality: Only A Fool Advocates “Banning” Nuclear Weapons

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that nuclear arms rank among the most destructive instruments of human ingenuity ever devised; there is no doubt that any global war involving their widespread use will either enslave the handful of survivors or be so lethal as to ensure there are none. The best possible intentions envisage a world without nuclear weapons, but the real world and its realities dictate that only a fool would ever attempt to realise such an objective.

I have been reading a story from the Fairfax press today, which reports on a meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima; this event was attended by the foreign ministers of 12 non-nuclear countries, and unsurprisingly featured survivors of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 as advocates for the outright banning of the possession of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Their call failed to elicit a commitment from the delegation to such an end; thank goodness it did.

I think nuclear weapons are horrific instruments of warfare; it is virtually impossible to use them without killing thousands — perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands — of innocent civilians every time such a bomb is deployed, even if the intended military or strategic target is destroyed.

I also generally believe that nuclear-armed nations should refrain from any first use of nuclear weapons.

There are exceptions: during the first Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush issued a barely veiled warning to Saddam Hussein that any use of chemical and/or biological weapons on Allied troops would elicit a nuclear response on Baghdad; in the wake of the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, many commentators (including me) openly advocated nuclear retaliation if the attacks could be conclusively linked to either a foreign government or state-sponsored terrorist attack (they couldn’t).

But these are rare (and thankfully isolated) instances of unprovoked aggression warranting a nuclear response that, fortunately, failed to materialise, and I contend that provided there is enough restraint on the part of nuclear-armed powers to refuse to be the first to launch, this at least is one safeguard against the prospect of general nuclear warfare that would decimate civilisation as we know it.

Where the equation starts to blur is around notions of deterrence and nuclear blackmail; the weapons don’t need to be actually used to either safeguard their owners from attack or to achieve sinister objectives under duress. I don’t even think lunatics like the regime in North Korea envisage nuclear retaliation for an unprovoked atomic attack raining down upon it with any relish; it is fair to say that even the most hardened despots find the prospect of their own nuclear annihilation abhorrent, even if their regard for that of others is cavalier at best. Thus, the irony is that it is on the very questions of deterrence and blackmail that the root of the debate over nuclear arms resides.

The conference in Japan to which the Fairfax report pertains — staged, as it was, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine — even noted that the Russian action may not have occurred had Ukraine not ceded the nuclear arsenal it inherited upon the collapse of the USSR back to Russia in 1992: I’d say it’s a very fair assumption to make, given nobody would have intervened in the interests of either side had a localised Russia-Ukraine nuclear exchange erupted over Crimea. (Yes, I am aware of the issue of fallout such a regional conflict would impose on surrounding countries. My point is that those countries and their allies would hardly worsen the problem by inviting the spread of the conflict itself onto their soil).

Whilst that scenario is obviously a hypothetical one, a live version of it was played out early last decade between belligerently nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; these are countries whose religiously based hatreds run deep, and whose military planners for a long time viewed nuclear weaponry as simply the latest — and most potent — thing to lob at each other should they return to a state of war, most notably over the disputed border region of Kashmir.

At the time, wiser heads prevailed upon both sides to cool the tensions that led perilously close to war. But the undercurrents that remain could as easily be stirred anew: shortly after the last explosive crisis was defused more than a decade ago, India’s nationalist, right-wing BJP government was defeated by the Centrist Congress Party; that wheel has now turned full circle, with the BJP expected to return to office in a landslide in elections underway as we speak after two terms in the wilderness. And Pakistan is hardly a country noted for its stability or security, and in which a hardline military junta could seize power at any time — just as it did in 1999. Unlike the hypothetical Eurasian scenario, the variables in this regional powderkeg remain just as volatile, and heavily armed with nuclear weapons to boot.

One of the reasons there is no serious talk of military assistance to Ukraine and against Russian aggression is because Western powers know it is action they cannot take: nuclear-armed Russia might respond by engaging in conventional warfare. But there is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t select the nuclear response available to him, either.

I can hear my critics. Doesn’t all of this speak for — rather than against — the abolition of nuclear weapons?

Margaret Thatcher once said (of a proposal by President Gorbachev for the USA and the USSR to unilaterally disarm, which Ronald Reagan contemplated agreeing to) that you could no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you could “disinvent” dynamite: from her perspective, which was that of the Anglo-American alliance, if others had them, then Britain and the US must have them as well.

She was absolutely right, much to the horror of the CND activists who momentarily believed their wildest dreams would come true.

For one thing, for the abolition (or banning, elimination, whatever you want to call it) of nuclear weapons to be feasible, there must be trust among the stakeholders involved; I point directly to the Kremlin, noting that the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine — whilst not involving nuclear weapons, or at least, not yet — are evidence enough of the repercussions in such situations where one side simply disregards the imperatives of the other.

Does anyone seriously think that if Russia agreed to unilaterally destroy its nuclear arsenal that it would honour the deal? It might permit international inspectorates to monitor the dismantling of x number of warheads. But Russia — not to put too fine a point on things — has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Who would risk the security of the entire free world on a potentially empty promise from its government?

For another, there are those states that either refuse to officially confirm the existence of their nuclear arms (Israel) or refuse to sign instruments aimed at the control of nuclear weapons and curbing their proliferation (India, Pakistan, North Korea). North Korea in particular is unlikely to ever voluntarily surrender what limited number of warheads it possesses; it also has a recent history of being led by lunatics hellbent on inciting anti-US hatred among its population. A denuclearised America would face the very real prospect of a North Korean container ship being sailed into San Francisco Harbour, and…kaboom.

It is well known that China’s military mischief in recent years — principally over matters of disputed territory that it pushes claims over with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam — have been constantly ratcheted up and underpinned by the nuclear muscle to settle any or all of them at a stroke if required; one of the realities that constrains China from doing so is the fact Uncle Sam would retaliate in kind and in such a fashion that there simply wouldn’t be a China (a scenario which also raises — depending on whose version of geopolitical allegiances you listen to — the prospect of Russia coming to China’s aid against the US).

In all of these cases, the very existence of nuclear weapons on one side of a given equation is a balance and a restraint on the other from using its own. It isn’t an ideal situation by any stretch. But it has prevented nuclear conflict since World War II, and certainly since the USSR achieved an offensive atomic capability of its own to match the United States in 1949.

And there is no guarantee whatsoever that the scenario regularly presented by the younger President Bush — that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists, whether sold by a rogue government or stolen, that can then be used against countries like the USA and its allies — will never happen. In fact, an international disposal operation of tens of thousands of warheads would increase the likelihood of precisely that occurring, given the heightened difficulties in accounting for every warhead during such a massive undertaking, and verifying and documenting the dismantling and destruction of their components.

We’ve only touched on a handful of the world’s hotspots and the hypothetical scenarios and permutations they conjure up. There is no shortage of others. But to fundamentally alter the uneasy nuclear balance that has evolved over almost 70 years is, to my mind, to fundamentally undermine international security and heighten — not eliminate — the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack occurring somewhere in the world.

Do I deny the risk of nuclear accidents? Of course I don’t.

Do I deny the possibility of a sneak nuclear attack occurring as things stand? Of course not.

Do I deny the horrific suffering inflicted on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945? Of course I don’t.

And — except for the attacks in New York in 2001 — I don’t think any of the world’s conflicts since 1945 should have been settled using nuclear weapons; 2001 is a moot point, as there was no identifiable enemy against whom to retaliate in such a tangible fashion.

(And anti-Iraq War people: don’t read more into that than it says at face value; Hussein had to be overthrown and the US was right to do it, even if the “intelligence” provided by the Blair government that justified the operation subsequently proved to be largely incorrect).

Even if the eight known nuclear-armed countries pledged to irreversibly dispose of their nuclear arsenals (and even if, by some miracle, North Korea actually did it) there are three considerations that cannot be discounted, and the existence of any of them should be a bar at least to our friends in the US and the UK, in our interests and theirs, from dismantling their arsenals.

1. Someone might hold out: someone might retain a “secret stash.” It’s not impossible by any stretch.

2. Someone else might have nukes and/or sell them to stateless third parties who then act independently to launch against a disarmed Western country stripped of the deterrent of the US-UK nuclear umbrella.

And (most importantly) 3. Destroy the warheads by all means, but the technology would still exist. There are already those, such as rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who have proliferated this technology to North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and God alone knows who else. The knowledge is too widespread to be wiped from existence, and too valuable not to be preserved. It will always exist. Any belief to the contrary is, frankly, so intellectually negligent as to defy belief. And for as long as it exists, the threat posed by nuclear weaponry will exist as well.

The “goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” is a noble one, but it can never happen: in this vein, the foreign ministers at the Hiroshima conference were right to resist the call to ban nuclear weaponry outright, and it is a matter of some small mercy that its recommendation to ban the production of “fissile material for nuclear weapons” will carry so little weight as to never be enacted.

In Fairyland, there will never be nuclear war. In the real world, the prospect of it can never be entirely discounted. The hard, cold reality is that deterrence is a better option than a state of disarmed helplessness. Only a fool would suggest the latter is in any way preferable.

 

 

Able Archer: 30 Years On From Nuclear Near-Miss

SPARE A THOUGHT for the nuclear Armageddon that so nearly, yet inadvertently, destroyed civilisation 30 years ago; a routine military exercise at a time of heightened cold war tensions, this day in 1983, came dangerously close to triggering a colossal Soviet strike on the USA and Western Europe.

I thought it appropriate to note the 30-year anniversary of Operation Able Archer given its significance as a turning point in the Cold War, and representing as it did the time at which the world arguably came closer to devastating nuclear wipeout than at any other.

To some extent, the same issues are pertinent in the world today: thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, with a window of mere minutes for a nuclear-armed nation under apparent attack to assess the threat and strike back.

Then, as now, it represents the potential for miscalculation,with catastrophic consequences.

The world, obviously, has changed; yet in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia — depending on who you listen to — is a nuclear threat, either due to rearmament and modification of its nuclear arsenal and a determination to reclaim the international strength and prestige of superpower status, or because of ageing and decrepit missile and control systems that are increasingly susceptible to malfunction or accidental launch.

The USA — on President Obama’s watch, at least — seems determined to realise further steep cuts in the number of strategic nuclear warheads that remain actively deployed on high alert. Yet there is little concrete evidence to suggest America’s moves in this area are reciprocated by Russia, and in any case, stories of demoralised US nuclear forces have also found their way into the international media over the past few years.

And of course, there are the “rising threats” posed by other nations and rogue states who have either acquired nuclear weapons capability or seek imminently to do so: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, for instance, all deepen the complexity of the nuclear equation and add to the general instability posed by nuclear weapons in a multipolar world.

The point of this post isn’t to scare anyone, or even to make a case for or agin when it comes to the world’s nuclear armaments. Rather, at what is unquestionably a significant time in the modern history of the world, I seek merely to note, and to commemorate.

To this end, just a single reference: a very good documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the UK a few years ago, dealing specifically with Able Archer, but which also provides a fascinating glimpse into the international politics and threats of the day — particularly where nuclear weapons and the politics of the Cold War are concerned.

For those unfamiliar with the background and nature of the Operation Able Archer exercises, this article (although dating to 2007) should give a broad overview of what was involved and the international environment in which the exercises took place.

The thing that struck me most in reviewing Able Archer at the weekend wasn’t the near-miss the world had with a nuclear Armageddon in 1983; rather, it was the consideration that apparently restrained the USSR from launching an all-out attack: the memory of Russia’s ambush and invasion at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1941.

And whilst I have read extensively on Able Archer over the years (nuclear politics being a bit of a pet interest), it surprises me that fewer people know about it. Everyone knows of the weather satellite launch that confused a Russian radar crew in 1995 and saw then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin open his nuclear briefcase in readiness to retaliate against the strike that proved a false alarm, but relatively few people know about this.

I support the continuing deployment of a Western nuclear deterrent; as Margaret Thatcher once observed, you can no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you can “disinvent” dynamite, a reality that I believe really ought to be accorded greater consideration in the arms control and arms reduction politics of the present day.

And I note that 30 years on from the near-catastrophe of Able Archer, the present generation of world leaders is largely unrestrained by the atrocities of the second world war: certainly, we all know how that disastrous conflict played out, but the key international figures of 2013 are the children of those who witnessed it first-hand, whilst the WWII generation itself is, literally, dying — and their memories with them.

I hope readers enjoy the material I have linked to and, as ever, encourage those interested to seek additional reading and media on the innocuous, routine exercise that very nearly triggered a third world war 30 years ago today.

Interesting Links On The North Korea Situation

JUST to follow up on the articles I have posted on the escalating tensions between North Korea and its “hated enemies” — the USA, the South Korean government, and Japan — I’m posting a couple of links tonight which readers may find of interest.

Whilst acknowledging the dangers — and not least given North Korea and its incendiary rhetoric have gone far further than the usual empty bluster it engages in — I still think the most likely outcome of the rising crisis on the Korean peninsula is that nothing will happen.

Even so, any country or regime promising “all out nuclear war” on anyone — especially when it’s three of our biggest trading partners in Japan, South Korea and the USA, the latter also being the owner of thousands of multi-megaton nuclear weapons — needs to be taken seriously to the extent they are monitored, their words and actions analysed, and contingencies prepared for even if such preparations are never acted upon.

It is for these reasons that I have written the occasional article on the present flare-up between the DPRK and everyone else — even if the latest round of belligerent bluster proves to be nothing more, I think it’s important to cover it, given we talk about events in other parts of the world too.

With this in mind, I wanted to share a good article from the BBC World News agency, which you can access here; this article also has some links to other material of interest about North Korea, its threats, and reaction and analysis — including from the South.

I note that it also links to an obituary for dead DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il, father of present leader Kim Jong-Un; it may amuse/interest/perplex/disgust readers to know that one of the favourite articles I have written and published in this column over the past two years was my own obituary for Kim Jong-Il; you can access that article here.

(And knowing I get quite a bit of traffic from readers in South Korea, I hope our friends in the South enjoy it too — the guy caused you enough trouble over the years).

Finally, for those who have either not heard of it or never been able to find it, I wanted to share a link to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) website — the official North Korean “bulletin board” for posting propaganda, threats and seriously weird stuff for the benefit of the outside world. You can access that little gem here.

The site is hosted by an internet server in Japan, which is no real surprise given the internet is really the preserve of the ruling elite in North Korea — even if Japan is a starring member of the DPRK’s murderous hit list.

Somehow, the mangled English the translations feature really add something; as readers will see, much of the ranting that is published on this site has a distinctly surreal feel about it anyway, but the broken sentences and words mismatched to their intended meaning take the experience to another level altogether.

I trust readers will find the material included in these links to be of interest and — whilst not detracting from the potential gravity of the situation on the Korean Peninsula at present — some amusement as well.

 

By The Twitching Of My Thumbs: North Korean Nuclear Test

I certainly don’t mean to be flippant; North Korea’s third nuclear test at 1.57pm today (AEDT) heightens the risk its mad regime poses to regional and world security, backs China into a dangerous corner, and signals an approaching strike capability upon the United States.

As has been observed in the mainstream press today, North Korea is a state that is immune to the repercussions of its actions; I would go a step further, and say it is run by a junta obsessed with obtaining a nuclear strike capacity and, seemingly, the intent to use it.

Never mind that any nuclear attack launched by the DPRK’s resident despot Kim Jong-Un on South Korea, Japan or the US would likely result in the instant nuclear annihilation of his country; bellicose North Korean propaganda and rhetoric has long emphasised the regime’s belief that with an atomic strike capacity, it will be the equal of the United States.

It is difficult to sort rhetoric from reality when it comes to North Korea; certainly when endeavouring to ascertain the scope of its offensive nuclear capacity or the technological progress it has made to advance it.

Today’s test comes at a time when tensions in the North Pacific are already running high, as China throws its military muscle around in apparent pursuit of various territorial claims, with Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines all deeply unsettled by its conduct.

And it follows the recent test of a long-range ballistic missile by the DPRK that was at the minimum partially successful, and which in any case proved that North Korea is making progress in terms of the delivery systems required to hit the west of the United States.

Ominously, however, it is the first of the three nuclear tests carried out by North Korea in which the regime has claimed to have detonated a miniaturised device; were this to be true it would represent a terrifying leap forward in the North’s capacity to fit a warhead to a long-range missile and fire it at an urban American target, most likely Los Angeles.

North Korea has never attempted to conceal its hatred of the United States, nor make any secret of its desire to attack America should the means present themselves.

The difference between the DPRK and, say, Iran, is that the Koreans have also paraded their weaponry, detonated their warheads where the explosions can easily be detected, and allowed the world to watch as it openly strengthens its ability to strike.

It is here that the delusion of the North Korean regime makes it so dangerous: it actually believes the ability to hit a couple of American cities will transform it into a superpower.

China — the North’s only ally — is known to be losing patience with its problem child, and it strongly advised the DPRK not to proceed with today’s test.

Yet it seems bound to continue — for now, at least — in its role as protector, for fear of a unified Korea in alliance with the USA and the alteration to the regional strategic balance such an eventuality would bring.

The test has elicited the justified, if predictable, wave of outrage and condemnation around the world that incidents such as this do; it remains to be seen what stomach — if any — there is among the international community to do anything meaningful in response.

There will, of course, be another resolution in the United Nations to condemn the DPRK, and quite possibly another resolution imposing more sanctions.

North Korea, however, wears condemnation and isolation as a badge of honour; any additional sanctions — toothless as they must be to circumvent the vetoes of China and Russia at the UN — would seem to offer no prospect of shifting the DPRK from its course.

On the contrary, such action would likely embolden it, and not least considering today’s test was in apparent defiance of the previous sanctions imposed over the long-range ballistic missile test.

It is to be hoped the re-elected Obama administration finds a way to pressure China to reel its errant neighbour in; too often in the past four years, Obama’s government has borne a suspicious resemblance to Bill Clinton’s in foreign matters: kick issues down the road wherever possible, and hope for the best when it can’t.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in an initial reaction to news of the test, made a lot of noise as a United Nations Security Council member about “(working) for the strongest possible response to North Korea’s continuing defiance of the will of international community.”

Her government would want to do better in its efforts than the pathetic abrogation of responsibility in the UNSC with its abstention from the vote on the admission of Palestine as a member state.

China, for now, has given no indication that its position is at all changed by today’s test.

And the test, coupled with the recent missile test North Korea attempted to pass off as a satellite launch, makes it clear that the mad junta running the DPRK will not stop until it is able to lash out with nuclear weapons — and that when able to, may well do precisely that.

It pushes China down a dangerous path, and confronts it with what it perceives to be an insidious choice: to continue to back its troublesome ally and risk an eventual US-DPRK conflict into which it would inevitably be drawn; or to abandon North Korea, with the certain result it would be flooded with refugees, and hemmed in by a US-backed, unified Korea that would radically alter the strategic balance in the Pacific in America’s favour.

Both outcomes are regarded as intolerable by Beijing.

Yet the US — rightly — will not tolerate a nuclear strike on its soil without enacting colossal nuclear retribution on the perpetrator; it is doubtful the US would even tolerate the strike capability in this case, given the belligerent and inherently violent conduct of the DPRK.

By the twitching of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…

Our part of the world got that little bit more dangerous this afternoon.

Russia Flags Prospect Of Nuclear War If Iran Attacked

For years, Iran has sent out conflicting messages as to why it wants nuclear technology; for years, the West has debated what to do about it. Now, with a “red line” about to be crossed and the US signalling they are ready to strike, Russia has warned such a conflict could become nuclear.

It’s a potential for conflagration that has just about every possible — and volatile — ingredient and sub-plot: Muslims vs Jews, Iran vs Israel, Russia vs the USA; inexhaustible oil, nuclear weapons, and black market trafficked technologies; a lunatic dictator with a stated policy of wiping Israel off the face of the Earth, a superpower pledged to defend Israel militarily, and a remilitarising Russia claiming UN-related grievances and now flexing its nuclear muscles.

And whilst it’s true that the most likely scenario is that things are resolved diplomatically, the growing risk is that it may end very, very badly.

During his eight years in the White House, former US President Bill Clinton consistently kicked foreign policy challenges down the road to be dealt with by whoever followed him into office — Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Al Qaeda, the Middle East generally, North Korea — you name it.

Only when completely unavoidable did the Clinton administration act — and even then, to the minimum extent required to get the problem off the daily running sheet.

As a result, by the time George W. Bush assumed office, the USA was facing a growing number of increasingly urgent flashpoints that required addressing; ambushed by terrorists on home soil on 11 September 2001, Bush Jr began to act.

I point out that I do not necessarily condone all of the actions taken by the second Bush administration, and nor do I excuse or apologise for some of the excesses that accompanied them. The simple point is that as Bush Jr’s administration progressed, and as the number of “operations” it undertook increased, resistance grew, both in the USA and elsewhere, among the body politic, among the commentariat and the information class, and among the wider public.

It also grew on the United Nations Security Council.

Indeed, by the time Bush and his ultra-hawkish Vice-President, Dick Cheney, arrived at the decision to “liberate” Iraq from Saddam Hussein and the threat posed by his alleged trove of weapons of mass destruction, Bush and his allies (including Australia) was forced to rely on a UN Security Council Resolution that implicitly authorised the military action taken (UNSCR 1441) as other members of the Security Council — notably, Russia and China — refused to support a further, more specific resolution to mandate military action.

Indeed, both threatened to veto any such resolution.

Of course, the legality or otherwise of what has become known as the second Gulf War has been the subject of debate that has raged ever since; it is not a tangent I intend to be diverted down, and is a subject for others to deal with, and in other forums.

My point in raising these matters is twofold; firstly, it raises the issue of the fraught process of the United Nations system as a mechanism for negotiated authority to deal with threats — real, perceived or otherwise — on an international basis; secondly, it highlights a point in time at which Russia (and to a lesser extent China, the issue of North Korea notwithstanding) began to frustrate, through the United Nations, the policy agenda and ambitions being pursued by the nations of the West, led by the USA.

And this brings us to the fraught issue of Iran, its nuclear ambitions, what to do about them, and what the consequences might be.

It is well-known that Iran — for many years now — has been pursuing the development of nuclear technology; Iran says it requires a civilian nuclear industry for the peaceful generation  of electricity.

This would seem at odds with the fact that Iran, blessed with natural resources on a vast scale, is possessed of virtually inexhaustible energy reserves; indeed, the suspicion of several of Iran’s neighbours, as well as the US and its Western allies, is that Iran’s nuclear program is primarily concerned with the development of atomic weapons, not  its domestic electricity supply.

It is also well-known, and established, that nuclear technologies (including technology for nuclear weaponry, warheads and missile delivery systems) have been extensively smuggled and sold into Iran through black market racketeers, especially those originating from Pakistan and North Korea.

And it is known, and uncontested, that Iran’s nuclear plants are predominantly ensconced in facilities deep beneath the ground, mostly in reinforced concrete bunkers and/or under mountains, often underneath layers of rock, where they are impregnable against conventional weaponry and difficult to destroy even with nuclear armaments.

Iran has played a cat-and-mouse game with the rest of the world, wilfully frustrating attempts to satisfactorily verify that its nuclear activities are as it claims and disrupting independent international inspection efforts.

And its leader — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man widely viewed in the West as dangerously unhinged at best, and potentially a suicidal lunatic at worst — is a dictator whose stated policy is to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

His administration is informed by a strictly conservative religious bent; Ahmadinejad makes little secret of his hatred of Israel and his belief that it is a pollutant of sacred and holy lands. His term in office expires in a little under 18 months from now, and this is one marker that the long-touted confrontation over his country’s nuclear programs may be at hand.

Israel, unsurprisingly, is alarmed by what it perceives — correctly, in my view — as an existential threat; it has implored the United States to act and to strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but made it very clear that it is quite prepared to do so on its own if the US refuses.

In the meantime, Iran is believed to have already achieved the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, which is within striking distance of the level needed to fuel a nuclear weapon; the “red line” — realisation of the capacity to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel, which is not required in nuclear reactors producing domestic electricity — is fast approaching.

It is this “red line” that Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to cross.

All of this comes at a time at which the US believes its diplomacy and sanctions campaign is biting, and is likely to force Iran into striking a deal; however, like so many other regimes determined to pursue illicit weapons, Iran has proven in the past to be an unreliable participant in such negotiations and may well do so again.

It is against this backdrop that Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev this week made clear it will not support any Western military intervention in Iran, and warned that such action could lead to nuclear war.

Medvedev’s unhelpful remarks were made in the context of both Syria and Iran, and although Syria is, like Iran, a longstanding ally of Russia dating back to the Soviet era, it seems reasonable to infer that the primary motivator of his comments was Iran and the looming decision that must be made on its nuclear developments.

Saying that the two countries should be allowed to sort out their own affairs, Medvedev stated that “hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power.”

Which is fair enough, but what constitutes a “radical” is a very subjective consideration.

Israel — frightened for its very survival — would likely argue that Ahmadinejad and his regime represent an entity quite radical enough; Russia, by contrast, with its vast commercial and strategic interests in Iran, is clearly loathe to countenance any variation to the status quo.

Russia has made it abundantly clear that it is trenchantly opposed to military action in Iran, and that that opposition is hardening further.

In an ominous warning, he was quoted this week as saying, of military strikes against other countries, that “at some point such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons.”

Russia — despite decades of Cold War animosity with the West and, more recently, its insular and increasing preoccupation with its own interests — does not have a history of making ambit threats of the use of nuclear weapons; certainly, at times of tension between itself and the West, the possibility has been floated, but it is not a practice in which Russia or its predecessor state have engaged in at every turn in its international dealings.

And there have, of course, been times at which Russia/the USSR has readied its nuclear arsenal for launch; these have mostly been as a result of false alarms and misunderstandings, such as the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket in 1995 that led to the activation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s nuclear “suitcase” and nuclear keys, or in response to “Able Archer” in 1983, a routine NATO exercise misinterpreted by the Soviets as cover for the launch of a massive surprise nuclear strike against the USSR.

But Medvedev’s warning on this occasion — accompanied as it is by an empty reassurance that he doesn’t want to “frighten” anyone — would seem to represent a significant raising of the stakes in relation to the standoff with Iran.

Russia has been modernising and renewing much of its military capacity, including its nuclear arsenal; it has been resolutely opposed to every measure aimed at either containing the threat Iran may pose or at neutralising any action it may take (think the US’ missile shield, for example); and even its support for sanctions aimed at forcing Iran’s compliance with international inspection obligations has been lukewarm, and given under protest.

The scenarios of Israel’s security, a hypothetical attack on Iran and the likely consequences are ones which have consumed quite a degree of time in my circle; I have a number of Jewish friends who take an active interest in matters relating to Israel and its future, and as such Ahmadinejad and his ambitions have filled many conversations.

The scenario that keeps getting played out in these discussions runs as follows, and it’s not a pleasant one; significantly, the storyline described below isn’t new, but rather has been on the table for a number of years.

It goes like this: Israel, frustrated by the refusal of the US to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran and exasperated by Iran’s refusal to allow verification of the claims it has made about nuclear electricity generation, launches — at the point it is confirmed Iran has achieved uranium enrichment to the degree required to produce nuclear warheads — a conventional strike aimed at disabling or destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

This is unsuccessful; Iran retaliates, targeting Israeli civilians with mass casualties as a result. Israel responds, this time with nuclear weapons.

Russia — pledged to the defence of its ally, and despite the presence of Russian Jews in Israel — responds with a nuclear attack against Tel Aviv; and the US — also pledged to the defence of its ally — responds with a nuclear strike on Moscow.

And thus, the conflict spirals out of control.

In case anyone thinks this is doomsaying for the sake of it, it isn’t; rather, it is a recognition of just how fraught, how dangerous and how risky the standoff with Iran is.

Nobody wants a nuclear war, and I believe that includes Russia; but equally, the ingredients are all present for the first time in many years by which the end result, with one miscalculation, overreaction or false move, could well result in precisely that.

And Russia — be under no misapprehension about it — has openly and squarely put the nuclear option on the table.

It is to be sincerely hoped that these matters can be resolved peacefully, and that the world can move on; but the “red line” is approaching: very soon, Iran will possess the missing link in realising the greatest fears of Israel, many of its neighbours, and the West — the ability to produce fuel for nuclear warheads.

This isn’t North Korea, which uses bellicose rhetoric over its weapons to extract food and other aid from abroad, with a Chinese protectorate as likely as not to turn on its ally if it oversteps the mark; this is a fundamentalist Islamic country with a stated policy of wiping another country off the map, and very near the acquisition of the means to do exactly that.

What do readers think? Are you concerned about what the world does in regard to Iran? Do the consequences worry you? And do you believe there is the scope for any action over Iran to spiral badly, and catastrophically, out of control?

 

Dangerous Game: Iran Rattles The Sabre; US Throws Down The Gauntlet

A disturbing development — which is a surprise only in terms of the length of time the confrontation has taken to mature — occurred this week over Iran’s nuclear plans. Of all of the world’s present “hot spots,” this is the one most likely to lead to World War III.

Interestingly enough, the exchange in communications between the US and Iran has taken place at Christmas time; a meaningless occasion in Iran, and a time at which the obviously sensitive news reports can be buried amid feel-good stories in America.

For those who have missed the fun — and I don’t speak in jest; I’m deadly serious — Iran has responded to the UN-authorised sanctions due to take effect on Sunday by stating that should the said sanctions be implemented, it will close the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly a third of the world’s oil supply must pass as sea freight from the Middle East.

The US has simply stated that should Iran pursue such a course of action, it will respond with military force.

And that should worry people.

Most people know that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear capacity; the only area of disagreement is over its intent.

Iran says it wants nuclear energy for the peaceful generation of domestic electricity supplies; most of the rest of the world — including certain countries trying to shield Iran from Western retribution — believe it seeks nuclear weaponry capability.

Certainly, utterances from the lunatic Iranian dictator, Ahmadinejad, to the effect that he seeks to “wipe Israel of the face of the Earth” tend to underscore the latter rather than the former.

One of the first things I’d point out is that the sanctions due to be implemented on New Year’s Day are, on paper, authorised by the United Nations Security Council.

The problem is that both Russia and China abstained from the vote.

Big problem.

Russia, traditionally, has been a friend to Iran; Russia also has an awful lot of oil buried under the Siberian Steppes. It stands to lose relatively little from any conflict over oil.

Russia also has an awful lot of nuclear warheads.

China, on the other hand, is a mischief-maker; nobody really knows what its real intentions are, but at face value, China doesn’t exactly present as a model international citizen, with its bellicose activities in south-east Asia, its emergent alliances in South America and in Africa, and its economic stunts designed to show others who’s the boss.

China, too, has many nuclear warheads, which will be interesting should it ever attempt to retake Taiwan by force: the USA is obliged at law to defend Taiwan from China, and the day must come when China attempts to “reunify” with the renegade island republic.

China’s abstention from the vote on sanctions against Iran is perhaps less troubling than that of Russia; nevertheless, the Chinese seek to keep their options open on this issue, and in many respects that’s a very bad thing.

The dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions isn’t about politics; it’s about power.

On the one hand, the Iranians point to US activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and say “Look! The US is an international criminal! How dare they…”

Which conveniently overlooks the fact that a) Afghanistan was a proven harbour, training ground and safe-haven for terrorists, b) ten years ago the USA was justifiably seeking retribution for the despicable attacks of September 11, and c) it was Tony Blair of the UK, not George W. Bush of the USA, who provided the fabricated “intelligence dossier” for the Allies to invade Iraq.

But on the other hand, the fundamentalist Muslim regime in Iran has never — never — made any secret of its desire to see the destruction of Israel; the only thing different about the current Iranian leadership is the fact it’s said so explicitly.

So, who do you believe?

Do you believe Iran, with its limitless supply of cheap and easily recoverable oil, that it needs nuclear energy for electricity?

Or do you believe everyone else (except the Russians and the Chinese) and decide that Iran not only wants to become a nuclear weapons state, but wishes to use those weapons?

Or do you take the Russian/Chinese view, which essentially boils down to “nothing to see here people…move on…” and have faith that everything will be OK in the end?

I’d dismiss the Russian/Chinese position for the pap that it is; it isn’t even their position. Should push come to shove, neither country will be sitting around waiting to see what happens.

Insofar as the dispute over the Strait of Hormuz is concerned, however, it needs to be pointed out that the Strait isn’t just located in international waters, but that it is one of the world’s major sea routes, and pivotal to world trade — and not just in oil.

Were the Iranians to close the Strait it would, technically, be an act of war.

So what happens?

To me, it was always inevitable that Iran’s standoff with the West would end in some kind of armed conflict; the only questions were around timing and the shape such a conflict might take.

Iran — like so many countries historically run by fanatics — has been steadfast and resolute in its objectives.

Just as Hitler sought to rearm Germany under the noses of his European neighbours in the 1930s (and made Winston Churchill — the only political figure who saw through the appeasement thrown at Hitler and called the danger emanating from the Third Reich for what it was — look like an eccentric fool), so too has Iran attempted to play the world community for fools.

A couple of years ago, at about this time of year, an article appeared in the respected British conservative opinion magazine, The Spectator, in which prediction was made of an Israeli attack on Iran “in the new year” and that the attack was “likely to be nuclear.”

(Forgive me being a little vague; not knowing The Red And The Blue would ever come along at the time, I didn’t keep my copy of the magazine. The quotations I’ve made, however, stuck in my mind the day I read the article, and are accurate).

The central tenet was this: Israel — if the US didn’t do it first — would never allow Iran to go nuclear; rather than wait to receive a warhead detonated over Tel Aviv, Israel would use a neutron bomb as a depth penetration charge to pre-emptively destroy enrichment centrifuges that at the time were being installed by Iran deep beneath the ground.

It went on to add that such an attack might just be what Iran wanted, canvassing the idea that it may have bought a couple of nuclear warheads “off the shelf” and would respond with these to any attack by Israel. I don’t subscribe to that portion of The Spectator‘s case.

Even so, by all verifiable accounts, the Iranian nuclear programme is long beyond the point of underground centrifuges, and almost at the point where a call must be made: is the intent peaceful nuclear energy, or offensive nuclear weaponry capability?

To me, the belligerent threat by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz — and thereby attempt to plunge the world into economic depression — goes a long way toward providing the answer.

Iran can’t say it wasn’t warned: it has resisted all attempts by the world community and in particular, independent international bodies governing the responsible use of atomic energy, to verify its claims about peaceful electricity generation.

Of course sanctions were going to be imposed, and enforced.

Yet Iran now openly portends to behave like an international spoilt brat and attempt to punish those who seek to hold it to account for its actions.

And, as I said earlier, closing a sea lane in international waters is tantamount to an act of war.

Unless cooler heads prevail, and there is no closure of the Strait and thus no military action — and when talking about Iran, it’s difficult to see how cooler heads could prevail — I see this playing out one of two ways.

Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, and the USA attacks Iranian forces and — possibly — Iran itself; remember, with Iraq finished and Afghanistan being scaled back, the US has deep reserves of available troops, military hardware, and firepower.

Scenario one: Iran is repelled, and the Strait of Hormuz is reopened in short order; Russia, China and other nations allow the US and Iran to sort the matter out; and disruption to world trade and the flow of oil is minimal and the event, overall, is brief.

Scenario two: the US attacks Iran as per the above scenario; Russia and China come to Iran’s aid militarily; and someone — someone — lobs a nuclear warhead into the equation.

That’s the risk. That’s the danger. Iran calculates America doesn’t have the heart or the brains or the stomach to take the risk.

Yet someone will take the risk; and if the USA doesn’t take it directly, Israel will, believing (correctly, I think) that it faces an existential threat. And if Israel acts first, the US will defend it to the hilt.

Either way, the prospect of nuclear escalation is there; it is real, and this is one potential conflict that isn’t necessarily as predictable in terms of its outcome as other American military adventures have been.

I’m quite open about the fact I’m a friend of Israel and a friend to the Jewish people, but my views in this regard are informed by fact, not fanaticism.

Iran has forced the international community to a point where a great danger and — to use the words of Churchill — a gathering storm are about to be played out.

A dangerous game indeed; and the outcome far from certain.

 

A Fitting Epitaph: Rot In Hell, Kim Jong-Il

In spite of the risk of instability in North Korea, and the potential for such instability to cause grave problems for regional stability, the death of Kim Jong-Il is to be welcomed. In death, Kim Jong-Il should be treated with the scorn and contempt he deserved in life.

Contrary to his self-styled status as a “great leader” and a “dear leader” this was not a great man; he was not a world leader of any positive stature, nor indeed was he a respected leader in any constructive sense whatsoever.

He was, in short, a menace.

The news some hours ago that Kim is dead is welcome and not a little overdue; indeed, the world has “lost” one of its most dangerous, murderous and nihilistic despots.

The official cause of death reported initially in the official North Korean media — that Kim had died “of fatigue” on a train trip — is perfectly consistent with the other mountains of horse excrement propagated (defecated?) over many years about Kim Jong-Il by his regime’s propaganda machine.

Pearls such as Kim’s ability to control the weather by the power of his mind, or such poppycock as his ability to walk at the age of three weeks, right through to the insultingly misguided belief instilled into his poor countryfolk that North Korea was a world superpower who could engage and defeat the USA in a nuclear war — to name just a few — are indicative of both the idiotic nature of his repression, and of the lame-brained lemmings the North Korean “education” system is specifically designed to churn out.

To subsequently learn that Kim had, in fact, died from a massive heart attack is surprising only insofar as that generally, in order to have a heart attack, one first must have a heart.

Don’t misunderstand: this is a regime, and a tyrant, who has amassed vast personal wealth and accrued colossal military capability — including the development and expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities — whilst his people starved; forced to eat bark and leaf litter, the average North Korean now grows to just 1.4 metres (4ft, 6in).

This is a regime, and a tyrant, who has interned hundreds of thousands of his people in military gulags for dissent; eliminated countless thousands more on political grounds; yet has systematically and consistently failed to provide basics such as clean water and reliable energy to those of his people who hung adoringly, and misguidedly, on his every word.

This is a regime, and a tyrant, who has opted not to be a responsible world citizen, but to be a proliferator of nuclear, biological and chemical technologies — and the missile capabilities with which to deliver them — to equally murderous regimes in other corners of the world.

This is a regime, and a tyrant, who has spent many years causing real military angst for neighbours such as Japan and South Korea, and — since its acquisition of nuclear bombs — has repeatedly and belligerently threatened all-out nuclear Armageddon on the Korean Peninsula, across South-East Asia, and indeed across the world.

When dealing with madmen and lunatics, it matters little that the USA would wipe North Korea off the face of the world in a retaliatory strike lasting all of five minutes; the problem with lunatics — especially nuclear-armed ones — is that they can be dangerously unpredictable; even suicidal.

No, I think it’s fair to say, advisedly, that Kim Jong-Il was a heartless bastard.

Whilst the death of Kim Jong-Il is a welcome development, it fails to solve critical questions of world security and regional security; these will, in part, form the “legacy” of his reign.

Japan and South Korea in particular will rightly be pleased Kim is dead, but equally validly concerned at what might come next.

China — the North’s only (and long-suffering) ally — will most likely, quietly, also be glad to see the back of Kim; in spite of its own military mischief and games of brinkmanship with its neighbours and the US, its recalcitrant neighbour under Kim Jong-Il had become a monster increasingly impossible to control.

Questions abound about the “succession” that will now occur in North Korea.

His designated heir — youngest son Kim Jong-Un — is aged in just his late 20s and, despite reportedly being educated in Switzerland under a pseudonym, is said to be even more paranoid and violent than his father was.

There is the possibility that one of Kim’s other sons may challenge Jong-Un for the North Korean leadership; there is also the possibility that the North Korean military will enact a coup and assume martial control of the country.

Were that to occur, the outcome — quite literally — could be anything.

Yet what is likely to endure in the North Korean psyche is the paranoia; the utter conviction that the rest of the world — and especially the United States — wishes to wantonly destroy their country; the fantasy that the South has a proactive agenda to realise the same outcome, aided and abetted by the US, when in fact South Korea overwhelmingly desires peaceful reunification with the North; and the fairytale that North Korea can wipe out its enemies, real or perceived, simply because it has a small handful of relatively weak nuclear weapons.

Added to this, as outlined earlier, is the famine, the starvation, the appalling poverty and illiteracy of the population, lack of hygiene, or anything more than mediaeval levels of medicine, industrial production, or indeed any basic necessity of life judged against modern first-world standards — an indictment on a regime proclaiming itself as “the greatest revolutionary civilisation in the history of the world.”

And all this capped off with the sheer barbarism and cruelty of a tyrannical Stalinist regime that arbitrarily executes and tortures hundreds of thousands of its own citizens with little or no valid pretext, judged against any civilised standards.

This is Kim Jong-Il’s legacy to his country, and to the world.

North Korea no more needs Kim Jong-Il than the rest of the world will miss the need to indulge, cajole, and manage him.

It is true that there are great risks now in terms of the direction North Korea will take and what the consequences will be for that country, for the Asia-Pacific region,  and for the world generally.

That said, those risks are worth exploring when weighed against the fact Kim Jong-Il, and everything his chapter of the leadership of the murderous North Korean junta represents, is now gone.

Good riddance.