Nuclear Weapons and Tyranny

Despite the clear threats that exist to Israel and other western democracies from a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran, some have argued that parallels between China's development of nuclear weapons during the early through mid-1960s, and Iran's undeniable development of nuclear weapons at present, militate against taking military action against Iran in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, such lessons of history support taking action. We should run the counterfactual regarding China -- namely, what may have transpired had Western powers taken military action against China during the 1960s in order to prevent this communist police state from becoming a nuclear armed nation? Nuclear weapons have utility for both offensive and defensive purposes. Concerns regarding Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state are not limited the potential offensive use of these weapons. Iran is an authoritarian regime with a very problematic human rights record. China is, and has been for many decades, the equivalent.

When China obtained nuclear weapons between 1964-1967 (the so-called "fission-to-fusion" development transition), following initiation of their nuclear weapons development program in the early 1950s, this country effectively immunized itself from external actions such as military interventions for humanitarian purposes. What began soon after China's initial nuclear weapons test? The "cultural revolution" (a.k.a., the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution") that lasted from 1966 to 1976, in which large numbers of Chinese citizens were killed. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Yes, although there was much public posturing by Chinese leaders (notably Mao Zedong) during the 1950s and 1960s to the contrary, Chinese has not -- to date -- used its nuclear weapons. This was a risk, though, that must be acknowledged. If a state does not have nuclear weapons, the risk of their being used is zero. If a state does have nuclear weapons, such risks are non-zero. Clearly, a preferable objective would have been the prevention of China's nuclear-weapons capabilities. But we must also think about whether the unnecessary human tragedies of China's cultural revolution (and ongoing human rights abuses in that country) could have been -- or even, would have been -- prevented had China not been allowed to acquire nuclear weapons? Perhaps. And perhaps China would have subsequently democratized had their government not obtained nuclear weapons in the 1960s?

Using this reasoning, we must also extend the logic to Iran. If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it may use them against other states. But that is not the sole limit of our concerns regarding Iranian nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iranian state will immunize itself against humanitarian-based intrusions on its sovereignty (i.e., any future attempts by the international community to ensure analogous cultural-revolution style human-rights atrocities are not committed in Iran). As well, the possession of nuclear weapons by the Iranian leadership may entrench its authoritarian regime against democratic pressures far longer into the future than would perhaps be the case if this nation was prevented from acquiring such capabilities. North Korea is another good example on this point of fact. By this country's possession of nuclear weapons, western democracies are prevented from taking needed humanitarian action in North Korea, and North Korea's evolution into a democratic state may be delayed longer (if not perpetually) than would have otherwise been the case in the absence of a nuclear armed authoritarian regime.

Consequently, a simple parallel historical analysis between the Chinese and Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition programs is incomplete. While the feared nuclear war with China has not yet materialized, that does not mean it never will (i.e., future tensions over Taiwan could spark a nuclear exchange), and regardless, this is not the whole story. In the historical counterfactual, not allowing China to obtain nuclear weapons in the 1960s could have prevented the human rights atrocities of this nation's cultural revolution, and could possibly have led to a democratic (and even united with Taiwan) state before the present. Relations between a nuclear-armed China, its own citizens, and the international community since the 1960s have not been as bad as were feared, but they could have been much better had the Chinese nuclear capacity been prevented. These are strong lessons for our current dealings with the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and in the opposite direction to what some others are advocating.