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CIS panelists ponder nuclear age with Iran, North Korea

Barry R. Posen
Barry R. Posen

Alarm over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran should not derail a calm, careful analysis of the two countries' weapons capabilities and goals, a panel of experts said Nov. 9 in a forum sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies.

Speaking on "Iran, North Korea and the Second Nuclear Age," the panelists emphasized that while there are very real reasons to be worried, both countries are still a long way from full nuclear capabilities.

North Korea is close, but its recent nuclear weapons tests showed a "fizzled yield" and "they are not doing so well on a delivery system that would reach beyond the Pacific," said physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

However, Albright showed satellite images of nuclear facilities in North Korea and pointed out that the country is actively working on miniaturizing nuclear weaponry for missile use. Such missiles would pose a threat to its neighbors, and perhaps even the United States.

As for Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly sounds like a threat. But the panelists asserted that careful analysis provides a counterbalance to the aggressive rhetoric. Would a nuclear Iran sell nuclear material to terrorists? "It's an awfully risky proposition to give any nuclear weapons to nonstate actors,'' said Barry R. Posen, MIT Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program. Doing so puts your fate into their hands, he said.

Would Iran attack Israel? Only at great personal risk. Israel has 200 fission weapons, and "Iran is quite vulnerable to nuclear retaliation by Israel," Posen said. Islamic fundamentalists might accept Armageddon; however, "there won't be many worshippers left in Iran after an event like this," he said.

A policy of "containment and deterrence"--similar to the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union--may be more effective in neutralizing Iran than the threat of a "preventative war," Posen said.

The conventional wisdom that we're "at a precipice" and "facing a cascade of nuclear proliferation" should sound incredibly familiar, noted Jim Walsh, a research associate at the MIT Security Studies Program who focuses on international security. It echoes 1964, when China exploded a nuclear device, as well as more recent events. But the rate of nuclear proliferation has declined each decade since the 1960s, and 75 percent of countries considering nuclear weapons have renounced them, Walsh said. "In some ways, it's not the nuclear age, it's the non-nuclear age," he said.

The panelists noted that aggressive posturing by the United States may make some countries believe that they need nuclear weapons to ward off an intervention. If, however, the United States talks with Iran to both guarantee its security and assure leaders that there are no plans to invade, nuclear options may become less attractive, Posen said.

In response to an audience question, Walsh said that the United States could send a signal to the Iranian people by reducing some of our vast nuclear arsenal. Such a reduction, which would have no effect on defense, would indicate our peaceful intentions, he said. "Public opinion doesn't matter in North Korea. It does matter in Iran," Walsh said.

The panelists did, however, disagree over banning nuclear weapons. While Albright said he would like to see them disappear, Posen said bluntly, "I like nuclear weapons." He explained that he would hate to see what great powers might do to each other without the threat of mutual destruction.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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