Arab Spring into a Nuclear Winter?

November 6, 2011

Political Theory


Just a few of the nations of the Arab Spring

National Security has fluctuated as one of the most important values that Americans rank in their list of concerns for the nation. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, national security jumped to the top of most American’s list of the nation’s priorities. Now, ten years on things are different. After two foreign wars (one coming to an end by 2012 in Iraq and a resurgence in Afghanistan), the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA wire tapping debacle, an Anthrax scare, the execution of Sadam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Muammar Gaddafi things have significantly changed.  Talking about nuclear weapons seems like a trivial concept that was only really prevalent when discussing the Cold War. However, our President has named the threat Nuclear Terrorism as the biggest threat to the United States.  So, what is Nuclear Terrorism exactly?

Nuclear Terrorism is the threat of a terrorist group gaining access to an already made nuclear weapon or more realistically attaining nuclear materials (i.e. centrifuges, highly enriched Uranium or Plutonium) and using it against a state. Imagine if the Times Square bomber (Faisal Shahzad) actually was able to set off one of his car bombs, but on top of that it, imagine if it contained nuclear material, the results would be unimaginable. If Iran or Pakistan were to employ their nuclear weapons against another state, then they would be accountable and most likely blown to smithereens. But what makes nuclear terrorism so scary is that terrorists ( especially al- Qaeda) are not members of a specific government, so we couldn’t retaliate with our nukes against a specific country.

Why this point is noteworthy now is due to the Arab uprising that has taken the Middle East by storm. What is really dangerous is for a country to fall victim to a revolution, and with all of the political chaos somehow nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands (i.e. terrorists). Libya is an example of this. Libya once had a growing nuclear weapons program, but in an effort to build bridges with the West, Gaddhafi decided to denounce his own program and dismantle in 2003. However, there has always been speculation about the possibility of nuclear materials still in Libya. With no clear leader or sense of direction for the country that had been under direct control of Gaddhafi for over 41 years, anything is possible. Another, and even more threatening example is Pakistan. Pakistan actually has a developed nuclear weapons program, with over 100 active warheads. The political instability of the region in combination with the notorious corruption of the Pakistani government and the numerous amounts of terrorist groups that hail from the country could pose a huge problem for the West if they were to get their hands on nuclear material.

Also, Iran has expressed its determination to its nuclear program but strictly for energy and medical purposes. The face of Iran (but not the most powerful man in the nation) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also stated that he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map. It is not in the best interest for Iran to attack Israel or the USA with nuclear weapons because both of those nations have way more warheads. However, it is not impossible to think that the Iran government would turn a blind eye to letting their nuclear material trickle into the hands of terrorist groups who have similar goals as the Iranian government and are willing to do Ahmadinejad’s dirty work. This possibility is frightening.

Mahmoud Ahmandinejad

The Arab Spring has spread to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon to just name a few. This instability in collaboration with the threat of nuclear proliferation of the region could cause devastating outcomes. Just as of a few days ago,  the IAEA ( International Atomic Energy Agency, part of the UN) found a previously unknown Uranium enrichment plant in north-west Syria.

When the masses protest and leaders are being ousted as a new government takes form, certain things can fall through the cracks (i.e. unaccounted for nuclear weapons after the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union). The international community needs to ensure that with these liberating changes that have and are currently sweeping the Middle East, that nuclear materials are secure.

What are your thoughts about how the US should address Iran’s nuclear posture? Is Syria an actual threat, more possibly to Israel? Does President Obama have the political capital to follow through on his Prague Speech about pushing for the total eradication of nuclear weapons?

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13 Comments on “Arab Spring into a Nuclear Winter?”

  1. jacobdockser Says:

    While I also worry about the prospect of a nuclear war, I am hard-pressed to see a scenario where one is actually used. In fact, what scares me most is not the use of the first nuclear bomb, but the response that would follow such an attack. To this day, only two nuclear weapons have ever been detonated (both by the United States towards Japan) and although the response was Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, I fear that the response now would undoubtably include the use of many more nuclear weapons.

    That being said, I now believe the main objective of possessing nuclear weapons is for protection. Holding nuclear weapons as an option prevents other nations from using excessive force on you for fear of the retaliation being a nuclear attack. In this respect, I do not worry about nuclear warfare. However, I agree that if an active nuclear weapon were to fall into the hands of an extremist group it could be mishandled and be detonated. The key here is “active” nuclear weapon because I do not think that these groups are able to put together their own bombs quite yet.

    In respect to the Middle East, I do worry that Israel is a prime target for many of the arab nations and as a close ally should be protected by the United States. I do not think that Syria or Iran would use a nuclear weapon in an attack for the reasons I mentioned earlier and the fact that the nuclear fallout could drift throughout the middle east.

    When it comes to Iran, I believe the best approach would be to ignore them. The fact is that Iranian leaders have participated in exaggerated bravado for many years to invoke the United States into making the first move. Iran has shown severe incompetence when it comes to these statements and their nuclear aspirations. Any response by the United States will only give credence to what Iran is saying and provoke them to take greater actions.

    I also believe that President Obama has the political capital to move towards nuclear eradication. The recent agreement with Russia (the 2nd biggest nuclear nation) to scale down the number of active nuclear warheads is a step in the right direction, however, I think it is nearly impossible to achieve total eradication because there are so many different (some, irrational) actors in the nuclear arena.

  2. ldahbour Says:

    This is a very provocative piece. There are many points I agree with and many that I disagree with. But first of all, I am going to answer your concluding questions. Iran, without a doubt, poses a nuclear threat to the United States and many other nations, including Israel. Actually, the IAEA is expected to release a report very soon about Iran’s nuclear program and what they have been able to accomplish. So, your post comes at a very relevant time in that regard. I believe that Barack Obama should take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of the American people, first and foremost, and making sure that no allies are harmed by an possible attacks from a controversial nuclear power. However, I feel that it is in the interest of the United States is to reason their actions/intentions with regard to this issue based on objective and solid facts.

    Speculation can be a very powerful and misleading act. Although it is pretty clear that Iran does have sufficient nuclear power, it is not enough to continually stir the pot by calling Iran out based on JUST concern. That is why the report of the IAEA is essential and will put a lot of questions to rest. It is safer to analyze the objective report thoroughly so that the Unites States’ claims has legitimate support that will be accepted by the international community. To simply JUST call out Iran based on concern (even though the safety is in their best interest), the United States government risks losing legitimacy due to the lack of factual reports (like this one coming up from IAEA).

    The connection to the Arab Spring, however, is a lot less relevant in my view. I understand that any region, whether it be the Middle East or South America, is dangerous territory when vulnerable (as many Arab nations are now). But, what you are discussing is not the attitude of citizens in the region. The revolts that you see are calls for freedom and human rights. If anything these movements were lead by people that are more Westernized than the current regimes. International opinions/issues are of little concern to them right because what is happening is in their backyard. It is not fair to ask for increased International interference because of baseless concern (there it is again). Arabs in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and else where deserve their chance for a successful revolution, whether it lies in the interest of other nations or not. For once, in the Middle East, the interest of the Middle Eastern people is the loudest. To associate their strive for political freedom and economic improvement with speculated intentions of nuclear war is unfair to them.

    Nuclear war should be a matter of concern in the minds of our governments. However, to continually bring discuss it publicly, without having factual evidence to support it, will only create more problems rather than prevent them.

  3. #jasonschwartz Says:

    In your article, you make a comment; “So we couldn’t retaliate with our own nukes” in response to a nuclear attack on american soil. This response represents a huge issue in your argument and your thinking. One of the main reasons why Iran wants nuclear weapons so badly is simply because the United States has them and they feel that if we have them that they are entitled to them. The issue here is not just about issues with who gets and doesn’t get the right to bear nuclear arms, the issue here should address the dismantlement of all nuclear bombs in the world. In taking a look at this article: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-24/u-s-dismantles-last-10-000-pound-cold-war-era-nuclear-bomb.html you will see that we are beginning to look away from nuclear arms as a deterent, solely because, by having them ourselves, it motivates other people to develope them.

    In order to escape from the never ending fall down this nuclear rabit-hole, coutries all over the world need to come together and form an official agreement together in order to prevent a nuclear disaster from happening again. The only country in the world to ever use a nuclear bomb against another country is the unite4d states. If we want other people to change their ways than we as a people need to step up and change the way we think first. We need to lead by example rather than by asking others to do soemthing that we wont even support ourselves.

  4. antuck Says:

    I thought this was an excellent post, as were all of the comments that followed. The original poster’s examples were good. Gaddafi’s dismantling of Libya’s nuclear program and his subsequent death has left Libya’s nuclear future a bit more unsure. The argument that “certain things fall through the cracks” (e.g. unaccounted-for nuclear weapons after the fall of the USSR) during revolution is also a good example. (However, it could be argued that none of the Arab Spring countries possessed nuclear weapons, and it’s not like they’ll materialize just because there is a transition of governments.)

    However, I agree with posted ldahbour in that I don’t think the Arab Spring will lead to a nuclear winter (love the title, btw), for several reasons:

    1) There’s no reason to think that the revolutions will lead to the development of nuclear weapons. As ldahbour points out, “The revolts that you see are calls for freedom and human rights. If anything these movements were lead by people that are more Westernized than the current regimes. International opinions/issues are of little concern to them right because what is happening is in their backyard.” In short, there’s no reason to think the new governments will be pro-nuke—there may even be reasons to think they won’t be.

    2) Israel almost certainly has plenty of nuclear weapons. Regardless of what Admadinejad (a figurehead) says about wiping Israel off the map, no Middle Eastern country with fledgling nuclear powers is going to take on Israel. It’d be pointless and dangerous. (Of course, they could always do a backdoor deal with terrorist groups that, as the original poster said, are willing to do the “dirty work”. And it’s not like Israel can just bomb the country such a group would live in.)

    3) The nuclear fallout would distribute through the rest of the Middle East. (Credit due to Jacob; this point had never even occurred to me).

    In summary, it seems unlikely that the Arab Spring will lead to the development and use of nuclear weapons. There’s no reason to think that the revolutions will lead to nuclear development. Furthermore, before the Arab Spring, there were plenty of factors that would prevent or dissuade Middle Eastern countries from developing nukes, and nothing in the Arab Spring has undone these factors.

  5. goldman13 Says:

    This issue is, to say the least, multifaceted. First, there is the issue of American foreign politics. Although i have supported the actions of our military post-9/11, the white house has been under extreme scrutinization and attack for “needlessly involving ourselves in international affairs.” Our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was deemed, by some, as an abuse of power. George W. Bush has been (and still is) criticized over whether or not he actually knew (or believed) that there were nuclear weapons in the middle east. My question is, however, does it matter?

    As the author explains above, volatile nations in the middle east that have accrued a nuclear stockpile are a threat to the safety of the entire world. Iran’s view on Israel and the United States is clear, and if some of their nuclear weapons were “misplaced,” the safety of these nations would be in jeopardy. However, the terrorists that receive these weapons need not to attack either of these nations. I don’t mean to reiterate the argument of the author, but i feel that understanding the severity that is Arab Spring is crucial.

    That being said, i will support the action that our government deems necessary to protect the tomorrow of our nation. We have enemies worldwide, some of which are nuclear-ed, some of which aren’t. If the people that WE voted into office decide that these weapons need to be eradicated through the use of force, then i support that decision. The arms race during the Cold War is just one example of how a world composed of weapons, armament development, and threats is a nasty one. But sometimes extreme actions need to be taken in order to ensure the safety of many.

    If this means sending our troops into hostile territory in order to confiscate nuclear weapons – which very well may be an abuse of our own power – then i am in support of it. At some point, the United States need to consider its own interests. This is a selfishness that i agree with.

  6. benjadler Says:

    I believe that what is more dangerous than a nuclear winter is the threat of extremist regimes taking over in powerful Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Egypt. These two nations possess some of the stronger military forces in the region and both are throwing off the oppression of pro-western autocrats and are returning to Islamism. While I have no qualms with Islam, I do believe that their return to Islamism will also lead these new regimes to unite with terrorist groups in the region such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran has already allied with these groups and serves as their patron state, supplying them with weapons and training. Imagine more governments committed to supplying terrorism and anti-western/Israeli hatred. I do not believe that any of these countries (since many Middle Eastern countries do not have nuclear weapons) pose a nuclear threat, however, their continued aid to terrorism could lead to its resurgence like at the beginning of the decade, making national security jump back up to the top of our list.

  7. lnk72792 Says:

    I believe that this topic is a frightening one. No one really knows what is going to happen with Iran, and it is really scary to think about the possibility of them arming terrorist groups with nuclear weapons. I can’t imagine the chaos that would be caused. I am extremely worried for what will happen to Israel if anything like this were to occur. I am also very worried about what will happen in the world, potentially World War III even. It is a very scary topic to bring up, and it is scary to admit its feasibility. The UN has to become more strict and take more initiative over these issues. Raise the awareness more, and make Iran look like what they are doing is wrong. Hopefully that will make some difference.

  8. benjishanus Says:

    The thought of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is always going to be a cause for concern. That being said, there are two ways to approach the question of whether Iran should be entitled to have nuclear weapons:

    1) If we have them, they shouldn’t they be allowed? It would be hypocritical to grant ourselves the privilege/right to possess such dangerous weapons and not grant other countries that same right.

    2) They should not be allowed to have them, as there is absolutely no telling what they will do with them. We have made it pretty clear that our nuclear weapons are for national defense and dire situations only. Who knows what the intentions would be overseas, especially given the history of that region and their current beliefs. Even if Iran has not been at the forefront of all that, look who they are/have the potential to be associated with.

    Each opinion would likely involve some bias. That being the case, I’m going to go ahead and state that the United States must monitor the issue of nuclear weapons in foreign nations extremely close, and put a halt to it if any doubt whatsoever is presented.

  9. JoshH Says:

    To address your question of whether or not Syria poses a more realistic nuclear threat to Israel, I say no, they do not. Despite Israel’s current policy of nuclear ambiguity, it is widely accepted throughout the world that they are a nuclear power. In a hypothetical situation, should Syria acquire nuclear weapons, they most certainly will not use them in an attack against Israel. Kenneth Waltz, a main proponent of the continued horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the globe, introduces the concept of nuclear deterrence as both a preventative force of nuclear war and conventional war. His requirements for nuclear deterrence follow three necessities in a country:
    1. At least a part of a state’s nuclear forces must appear to be able to survive an attack and launch one of its own
    2. Survival forces must not require early firing in response to what may be false alarms
    3. Command and control must be reliably maintained
    Focusing specifically on the third requirement, Waltz claims that those in control of nuclear weapons must be rational actors, and if Syria were to acquire nuclear weapons, those in control would most certainly act rational. While Syria may not meet all three requirements of nuclear deterrence, Israel most certainly does, and that alone would be enough to deter Syria from a nuclear attack. Israel’s current nuclear arsenal guarantees the country’s ability to retaliate from a nuclear strike, and the threat of Israel firing its entire arsenal at Syria will be enough to force any Syrian official to forgo a nuclear attack.

  10. Brandon Baxter Says:

    I am not a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apologist. He has certainly said things against the Jewish people that is deplorable, like his Holocaust denial. And Iran certainly has a record of human right’s abuses. However, Mahmoud NEVER said, ‘wipe Israel off the map.’ And that is a very dangerous myth that has circulated around the United States and the world so much so that it is becoming a household news blurb. Juan Cole, an extremely respected professor at our university, is fluent in Farsi and translated Mahmoud’s quote as saying, “the occupation of Jerusalem will disappear from the pages of time.” Mahmoud was referring to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He has never advocated for destroying Israel or the United States, and to say so is grossly inaccurate. Iran has actually stated many times before that they would support a two-state solution and normalize ties with Israel if the Palestinians supported it.

    Iran has no interest in attacking Israel or the United States with nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons program of Iran is for deterrence. If you are worried about someone using nuclear weapons you should look at the West.

  11. jonkeren Says:

    The events that have been occurring over the last year and a half have been extremely frightening. When citizens of a country feel oppressed according to John Locke, they have the right to rebel and overthrow the existing government. After all, authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force. despite this fact, I don’t believe that it is a good thing that governments are falling left and right in the middle east. The reason this is so is because there are so many radicals looking for the right moment to take power. When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979 the radical Islamist government under Ayatollah Khomeini took power. He radicalized the country and made it one of the biggest threats to democracy. I feel as if countries like Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia all have the potential to fall into the wrong hands as radicals can easily take control of these governments. This entire Arab Spring is a huge threat to Israel and world democracy as a whole. Hopefully radicals will not have the ability to take control of these countries governments.

  12. pelarkin Says:

    The question of how the United States should address the growing threat of Iran is a question that is not easy to answer. Obviously, I don’t think anyone believes that we should invade and try to find anything nuclear, because as we have seen in the past, when we do that, that tends to go horribly wrong. However, I don’t really think that we can let a nation with leaders as volatile as Iran’s gain access to any sort of weapon of mass destruction, because I have no doubt that they would use it, almost certainly against Israel, who is, as of this point, our only major stronghold in the Middle East. Due to the fact that we are Israel’s largest ally, we have a major obligation to support them in any conflict, and I am worried about the prospect of a war between us and (almost) every other Middle Eastern nation.

    I think that President Obama has the collateral to try his best to eradicate nuclear weapons, however, to think that these weapons will disappear from the world forever is an incredibly naïve and uninformed statement to make. While the United States and Russia might be scaling down their massive nuclear stockpiles at the moment, there are many other countries who are either developing their own weapons or adding onto their stockpiles at the same exact time. Couple that with the fact that many of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons are unaccounted for (most of them probably in the hands of terrorist groups, unfortunately), and the prospect of completely removing all weapons of mass destruction from the planet is completely unfeasible. While I believe that reducing the stockpiles that we all know about is a nice step in the right direction, the President will not live to see the day when nuclear weapons are not on this planet.

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