With the West deep in sombre remembrance of 911, a new and dangerous shift in the nuclear balance is taking place in the shadows. There is a New Nuclear Realpolitik afoot that is shaping today’s world… and tomorrow’s.

Iran is moving patiently towards a nuclear weapons system. Taken together the empty commitment made towards a global nuclear zero, calls by the strategically-illiterate to remove the last US nuclear forces from Europe, and the out-dated US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) make the world’s nuclear future more dangerous not less so. The entire global arms control architecture is in urgent need of renovation if it is to be relevant to this century not the last.


Iran is playing clever. According to the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) Tehran will soon begin enrichment of weapons-grade uranium at a new underground site near Qom. Iran has been swift to remind the world that its intentions are entirely peaceful. At Bushehr the first nuclear power reactor to generate electricity in the Middle East began fuelling up in late August. It could be operational within a few months, although it will more likely take a year or so. In effect, Iran is using the civil programme to remind the international community of the failure of the so-called Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) to fulfil their side of a bargain struck 43 years ago in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the NPT the Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) would be given assistance to develop peaceful nuclear energy in return for the Nuclear Weapons States divesting themselves of nuclear weapons at the earliest opportunity.

With Russian support the Bushehr plant complies with the NPT, and by keeping its civilian development on a separate track to its military programme Iran is complicating attempts to reveal the extent and scale of Iran’s current efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The West is of course huffing and puffing and some limited sanctions have been applied by the United Nations, but oil-rich Tehran has little concern for its image in the West. Rather, it aims to become the strongest actor in the region sitting at the crux of the Middle East and Central-South Asia and snubbing the West is a conscious part of that strategy.

Why should the World be concerned? First, Iran’s ambitions are putting Tehran on a collision course with nuclear-armed Israel, which has some 200 warheads at Dimona. Second, if Iran succeeds in upping its prestige amongst developing states by deploying such weapons then with India, Pakistan and North Korea all now established nuclear powers any hope of President Obama’s Global Zero will soon evaporate. Third, nuclear weapons act as the great equaliser for states the armed forces of which are relatively weak, such as Iran. In the event of, say, ten or more nuclear powers a whole new balance between deterrence and defence will be needed.

Europe is not being at all clever. Earlier this year Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway moved to have the remaining 200 or so European-based US nuclear warheads removed from their soil. The role of nuclear weapons is to offset weaknesses in conventional forces. However, these very same countries not only want rid of NATO’s cornerstone nuclear defence, but they are also savagely cutting their respective militaries AND trying to neuter missile defence. This is strategic illiteracy of breath-taking proportions.

The US could have been cleverer. By proposing a Global Zero of which there is little reasonable chance the hitherto dormant strategically-illiterate have once again become exercised. Nor were the implications of the 2010 START treaty fully thought through. Reducing nuclear weapons is a good thing and with some 23,000 warheads the world-over there is clearly work to do. However, focussing purely on an out-dated bilateral track with Russia not only beefed up an untrustworthy Moscow but more importantly (and inadvertently) actually offered incentives to the likes of China and India to build-up to US and Russian levels precisely so they can be seen as equals – and made such a goal attainable. Strategic parity is all matters is precisely the essence of both countries’ national strategies.

Together, Iran, Global Zero and START 2010 have in effect killed the 1968 NPT – with nothing under consideration to replace it. Worse, US thinking reflects profound confusion in US strategy between Realpolitik and strategic political correctness. There is no European thinking of note. Consequently, an out-of-date multilateral arms control treaty will be left in place for fear that to replace its failing structures could bring the whole edifice crashing down. This is not least because the West itself is on very dodgy ground in terms of compliance. Where is the nuclear logic in that?

Political risk must now be taken. The democratisation of mass destruction allied to globalisation is driving seventy-year old nuclear weapons technologies and their associated missile into the strategic open far faster than arms control can stop it. Consequently, the leader powers are losing control over both the technology and likely end-users.

With the Non-Proliferation Treaty dying of old age what is needed is an entirely new Non-Proliferation Treaty with new incentives, enhanced constraints and with an International Atomic Energy Authority that is truly fit for purpose. Those Europeans who want rid of US nuclear weapons (and what about British and French systems?) should for a moment take a strategic view and realise that in this anarchic, Realpolitik world empty-unilateralism is as dangerous as uncontrolled proliferation.

The nuclear genie is now out of its aged and cracked bottle. It is therefore time for the West to regain the nuclear high ground and negotiate whilst there is still a semblance of strength. If not we will all sleepwalk into a nuclear nightmare.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.