Small Wars Journal

Non-Proliferation, the Arab Spring, and Bin Laden: Why Nuclear Weapons may be a Good Idea for Dictators

Non-Proliferation, the Arab Spring, and Bin Laden: Why Nuclear Weapons may be a Good Idea for Dictators

by Mark Munson

The events of 2011, including the rapid spread of democratic social movements in the Middle East and the dramatic death of Osama bin Laden in a US special operations raid, provide insight into the state of global non-proliferation efforts and why possessing the nuclear option may seem even more rational today for the world's dictators than in the past. The continued security relevance of nuclear weapons to states has been identified by figures as varied as AQ Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, and Bing West, former Reagan administration Defense Department official and author, who both recently argued that there would have been no military intervention against a nuclear-armed Libya (Khan presented his views in a May Newsweek column, West at a Center for New American Security conference in June).

Libya: Muammar Gadhafi today likely regrets that he shut down Libya's nuclear program in 2003. Gadhafi's retreat on WMD followed the invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's ouster, and was the culmination of a process of normalization with the West and the international community. This act and others, such as accepting responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, resulted in Libya being removed from the US list of states supporting terrorism and opened up Libya to the global economy, especially improving ties with Italy, whose firms secured lucrative contracts in the Libyan energy sector and also received significant investment from the Gadhafis. The West was quite comfortable with Gadhafi continuing to run an oppressive dictatorship as long as the money flowed and he no longer supported international terrorism.

However, in light of the growth of a grass-roots Libyan opposition inspired by the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the continuing existence of a government led by an unstable tyrant —to unleash the full violence of his armed forces against civilians proved unacceptable the international community. With even states such as Saudi Arabia and UAE supporting Arab League calls for a no-fly zone (while they were simultaneously sending troops to Bahrain to crush another democratic uprising), the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing armed intervention to protect the Libyan rebels. While Gadhafi's resume as a bad actor is so extensive that some NATO member states would have felt pressed to conduct strikes against even a nuclear-armed Libya, it is highly likely that Gadhafi may regret his rapprochement with the West and feel that nuclear weapons would have shielded him from outside intervention and allowed him to crush the rebels in Benghazi.

Syria: The response of Bashar Assad' government to demonstrations calling for a democratic Syria has been violent and repressive, with thousands dead and many more detained across the country. As far as is known publicly, the Syrian nuclear program ended in 2007 when the Israeli air force destroyed what has since been described as a nuclear reactor by the IAEA. Initially following Syrian protests earlier this year, Syrian Baathists were safe from outside intervention, ironically in part due to the Arab spring. With the future security policies of a democratizing Egypt unclear, the relative stability of an Assad-led Syria may have been comforting to other regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. As the death toll mounts in Syria, however, the likelihood of intervention from a neighbor such as Turkey increases. Regardless, the options available to a non-nuclear Syria's neighbors are greater than they would have been if the 2007 Israeli strike against the Al-Kibar facility had never taken place.

Iran: Iran's nuclear program continues despite its being signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To date, multi-lateral diplomatic efforts have failed to stops Iran's nuclear efforts, and it is unclear whether they will ever succeed. The democratic risings of the Arab world have likely reaffirmed the importance of nuclear weapons to the mullahs, especially in light of NATO attacks against Libya and the continuing echoes of Iran's own democratic protest movement following the 2009 election. In fact, Iran's government has cracked down even more harshly against its own opposition following the events in Tunisia and Egypt. If anything, looming over efforts to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program voluntarily are threats that it could be subject to strikes similar to those executed by Israel against Iraq's Osiraq reactor in 1981 and Syria in 2007, reaffirming the validity of implementing a nuclear capability before it can be eliminated.

North Korea: North Korean leaders took the opposite course of action from Libya following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, re-energizing the pariah state's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, seeing them as a shield against potential attack. Of particular recent interest, the November 2010 revelation that North Korea possessed nuclear enrichment facilities that were much more substantial than previous assessed by nuclear monitors nearly coincided with attacks against South Korean-held islands along the Northern Limit Line. This muscular and aggressive policy may be attributed to the 2010 announcement of Kim Jung-il's son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. A North Korean nuclear arsenal is likely viewed as a pillar of regime survival and an integral component of any campaign to ensure the succession of Kim Jong-il's son.

Pakistan: Pakistan's nuclear program exemplifies its strained civil-military relations. Pakistan's history is full of instances in which the generals have not allowed the state's civilian leaders to have any control over national security policies. While the debate still rages over exactly what the Pakistani government knew regarding the location of Osama bin Laden, it is quite plausible that his hiding place in Abbottabad was another secret withheld from civilian leaders by some element of the military or security services.

What is clear is that Pakistan's military leaders have lost significant face following the US raid, either because they deliberately hid bin Laden for years (during which Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists had waged a deadly campaign against Pakistan's own citizens), or because of the Pakistani military's inability to defend its own sovereign airspace and territory against outside intervention or aggression. India's army chief has even piled on, claiming that India could also carry out similar raids against Pakistan.

Pakistan's military has historically portrayed itself as the institution ensuring the existence of the Pakistani state. A military that has demonstrated that it is either incapable of defending against outside aggression (by the US, or more importantly, India) or complicit in the sheltering of the world's most wanted man, may be forced to rely even more on the existence of its nuclear arsenal as the guarantor of Pakistan's survival.

Despite the many positive geopolitical developments of the last several months, current events do not bode well for the continued spread of nuclear non-proliferation as a global norm. States which do not comply with non-proliferation are either actively rewarded (this includes the US acceptance of India's nuclear program), or have not faced outside intervention (North Korea, Iran). States such as Libya that have played by the rules were easily thrown aside when their behavior was viewed as unacceptable by the international community. The pursuit of nuclear weapons still seems like an attractive course of action for authoritarian rulers.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson currently serves as the Intelligence Officer for Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR. He has previously served onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2) and at the Office of Naval Intelligence.


Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 07/20/2011 - 1:47am


I know nuclear weapons are capable of doing significant damage in several ways. So are conventional weapons of which there are a great many more than there are the nuclear versions. A huge number of nuclear detonation could be very problematical but the likelihood of that is quite small. any user of nuclear weapons would become and instant worldwide pariah and target. That is not to say that some rogue element cannot obtain and employ one and do great damage in a locale but such use is unlikely to be devestating to any nation.

AQ is being rather rapidly taken down. they are still a danger but far less so than they once were and the prognosis for a major resurgence is slim. Hezbollah, OTOH is more competent and -- potentially -- more dangerous IF they decide to expand outside the ME as they are alleged by some to have done or be contemplating. You are correct in that the Haqqani Network is a major problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan but their ability to project outside that region is slight. AQ is international but is being slowly disrupted. Hezbollah has international capability, better funding than the others and is more technically capable, thus IMO it is more dangerous than the others. It isn't scary or a major threat but it has potential to be a minor threat.

The US and Iranian relationship is complex and colored by domestic US political posturing. The potential for use of Iranian missiles is slightly real, mostly hype to for bargaining purposes with Iran -- and others.

On a practical basis, anyone who has known or potential missiles and / or nuclear weapons is on a watch list due to that. Not only by the US but by others and their intelligence agencies. The public verbiage about any one of them OTOH is situation dependent and much depends on things reported or said by the media (who get much wrong...).<blockquote>:An intro to the paper that I read at the AfPak Channel blog stated a lot of Western research on this topic is in Arabic and not Urdu or other local languages. Are we strategically blinded because of our traditional interest in one region over the other? I guess I don't understand why one so-called axis is dangerous to American interests while another is considered less so? </blockquote>Not blinded but easily diverted due to habit and the eurocentricism of the US Foreign Policy elite -- and, to a lesser extent, US News media. More attention is paid by the Washington establishment to US domestic political constituencies and their voting habits than to foreign regions. Israel is supported by us partly because they merit some support as a democratic nation but mostly because of the influence of Jewish voters in the US. Iran is an issue due to the seizure of the Embassy in 1979 and our being terribly embarrassed by not handling that at all well. Pakistani nukes are a minor problem but access to Afghanistan and assistance in policing the Durand line makes us not be too brusque about the nukes. Lot of minor factors in all of that -- International relations are always in motion as needs and perceptions shift. The key is not what is said but what is done.<blockquote>"Aren't there parallels in a post-Cold War era? Can this supposed strategic blind spot on our part be leveraged by others? Why would anyone take the US, its actions, or its rhetoric seriously when they can just work around us as long as they say and do the right things?"</blockquote>Some parallels, nations change slowly. That nominal blind spot is leveraged by others constantly. Sometimes we know we're being manipulated but tolerate it for other reasons not readily apparent. Sometimes we do not know and we get taken. There are those who obtain what they want from us by paying lip service to what we say or they think we want and we tend to accept that to keep things tranquil. Again, sometimes we know, other not.

The US is a huge, diverse and chaotic operation with a governmental system that is terribly inefficient by design. Other nations take advantage of that and politicians within the US do the same for their own reasons. The good news is that we usually (not always...) mean well, are fairly benign -- and aren't quite as dumb as we often look. ;)

That last statement does not apply to the Foreign Policy establishment who try to look smart but generally are not. They have great difficulty adapting to new realities. I'm not still fighting the Cold War -- but they are...

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/19/2011 - 11:00pm

I forgot to add one more thing: I understand that two nuclear armed states with difficult proxies are worse than one, but I still don't buy that any kind of strategic rationale went into any of this. Digging around the National Security Archives, I find two documents that seem to suggest that our DC institutions just couldn't wait to get their hands on their favorite client state after sanctions. Like, two weeks after 9-11, State is ready with millions of dollars in aid plans. I think we didn't do due diligence on the issue of Al Q before the fact partly due to our long standing relationship with our old client State and our institutions prioritizing Iran and Russia over anything else.

But I don't know. The declassified documents leave a lot out. They are disconcerting, though. When I have time, I'll link them here. Have to run now....

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/19/2011 - 10:54pm

<strong>Ken White:</strong>

<blockquote>As an aside, nukes are IMO vastly overrated as a danger....</blockquote>

I hope you return to this thread because I am curious to know your rationale for that statement? I sometimes wonder if such concerns are overstated, too.

Also, on another thread (perhaps in the SWC), you mentioned that Al Q really isn't much of a concern but that Hezbollah is something to worry about because it is armed and dangerous. Quite so. But, for discussion purposes only....

Is this left over Cold War thinking?

I am always curious as to the institutional Army's (not that I know a thing about the institutional Army, just a sort of an impression I've gotten from reading various journals) varied attitude toward Iranian Shia proxies versus Saudi-Pakistani Sunni proxies?

If missiles directed at Europe or Israel from Iran or proxies are a concern for the American military, why not Pakistani missiles also (to include the "human missiles" in the West tracked back to this money-land node?)

By what metric is one a threat to American interests while the other less so? Is it the movement of ships from the Gulf? Is it our status as a, er, kinda-sorta Saudi "rump" state becuase of oil dependence?

All the blogs say that today's "hot" paper is the following, and it is the reason I am asking all of these questions.

(By the way, I really owe you an apology for some of the other threads around here. I think I got the whole "interests and empathy" conversation a bit wrong.)

<em>This report also provides insights into the strategic value of the Haqqani network. Specifically, it examines how, for the past three decades, the Haqqani network has functioned as an enabler for other groups and as the fountainhead (manba) of local, regional and global militancy....By detailing these ties and exploring how the group functions in this role, we will elucidate and contextualize the history of the Haqqani network.</em>…

The patrons are the Pakistani Army and the ISI, of course. An intro to the paper that I read at the AfPak Channel blog stated a lot of Western research on this topic is in Arabic and not Urdu or other local languages. Are we strategically blinded because of our traditional interest in one region over the other? I guess I don't understand why one so-called axis is dangerous to American interests while another is considered less so? Aren't there parallels in a post-Cold War era? Can this supposed strategic blind spot on our part be leveraged by others? Why would anyone take the US, its actions, or its rhetoric seriously when they can just work around us as long as they say and do the right things?

<em>As new Wikileaks reports indicate, despite the help of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q Khan in building Iran's post-revolution nuclear program, some top Pakistani officials do not want Iran to become a nuclear armed power. The Pakistani leadership, wishing for their country to remain the only nuclear Islamic state, cooperated with George W. Bush's efforts against Iranian nuclear development.</em>…

Are we to be locked into these patterns forever?

Okay, enough pestering all of you for the moment.

Also, since gender issues are such a big deal these days (according to Abu M's blog), I guess I should clarify that I am a she, not a he.

I never bothered to correct anyone before because I don't care. I just don't care about gender and diversity issues. Sorry. Not saying others ought not to care, but that I don't.

Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 4:56pm

Juan Cole??? Ok-a-ay-y.

Having spent a couple of years in Iran -- more than Cole has -- and visited a few other times, I'd simply suggest being rather careful what one assumed about the nation, its programs and its people. Most anything in non-Farsi press or media (and much in Farsi) is er, suspect. Yeah, that's a good word, 'suspect.'

As an aside, nukes are IMO vastly overrated as a danger and non-proliferation is vastly overrated as reality -- or even a possibility...

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 12:36pm

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson, there are dozens of nations with nuclear programs.

Having a civilian enrichment program is not the same as having a military program. They are two different tracks. In Iran;s case, there is no evidence for the second:

1. The US entices defectors from the nuclear program and debrief them. some come out of with documents. No weapons program.

2. US has world-beating signals intelligence capabilities. Telephone calls made by military and nuclear program officials are under surveillance. No evidence from signals of a weapons program. In fact in 2007 a call was intercepted by an angry IRGC commander complaining bitterly about the decision not to weaponize.

3. IAEA inspectors certify that no uranium has been diverted to military purposes- i.e. the seals are unbroken.

4. Inspectors find no signature of highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

5. Enriching to 95% would be power- and water- intensive and any such facility could be detected by satellite and other intelligence.

The concern is not that there is a weapons program, it is that the civilian enrichment program might be made a platform at some point in the future for a crash high-enrichment program, using the stock of low enriched uranium already at hand. That is what is meant by a two-year window once a decision to weaponize has been made. But the intelligence estimates are that no such decision has been made, and likely none will be. Moreover, the two-year window has been repeatedly alleged of such programs, and was with regard to Iraq, and in the latter case it was a fantasy.

(numbered points cited by Juan Cole)

As for putting down unlawful assemblies, I have some links to offer.

A comprehensive analysis concluding the 2009 election was legitimate:

A public opinion poll taken which shows majority support of over 80% in favor of the regime, as well as supporting the official election result:…

Another public opinion poll that also mirrors the official election result, as well as a 3:1 majority approving of Iranian law enforcement efforts against unlawful assemblies: