Controlling the Bomb

The United States is trying to prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to make nuclear weapons. This is only the most recent of its seemingly endless series of battles over the past 60 years to control which other countries have access to these weapons. In this it has failed to understand that as a nuclear-armed superpower it is as much part of the problem as part of the solution. As the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca explained almost 2000 years ago, "Power over life and death-don't be proud of it. Whatever they fear from you, you'll be threatened with." 

The United States was the first country to build an atomic bomb. It is the only one to have used them in war. Recognizing the enormous power of nuclear weapons, it considered how to protect its nuclear monopoly even before it had built the bomb. Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the bomb project, proposed in 1943 that the United States try to acquire total control of all the known uranium supplies in the world, to stop anyone else having access even to the basic material from which nuclear weapons are made. 

Having built and used the atomic bomb, the United States adopted a policy of monopoly and exclusion, to keep what was called its "winning weapon." It refused initially to cooperate with its closest wartime ally, the UK, to help it acquire nuclear weapons. Britain went ahead and built one anyway. 

The first "proliferation" fear was the Soviet Union-which also had been a U.S. ally in the war. There was a debate in the United States in 1947 about whether to pre-emptively attack the Soviet Union, including with nuclear weapons, both to check its rise and to stop it acquiring its own nuclear forces. U.S. war planners proposed that the policy should be that "The mere manufacture of nuclear weapons by another power, or even the procurement of fissile materials, might constitute grounds for action." The United States did not help France with its nuclear weapons program, but did not block its ally either when in the early 1950s it decided to go nuclear. But it was a different story when it came to China 10 years later. 

The United States considered attacking China when it looked like China might be about to acquire nuclear weapons. In April 1963, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff made plans that ranged from conventional air attacks to a tactical nuclear attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. There was a similar study by the U.S. State Department in 1964. Among the other options proposed were sanctions, infiltration, subversion and sabotage, and invasion. 

Logic of Non-Proliferation 

The thinking behind these policies was captured in one of the early U.S. studies about the consequences of nuclear weapons for international politics. It argued, in 1956, that the problem was not only that "regular rivals on the same level" might acquire these "absolute weapons" but that "possibly some of the nations lower down in the power scale might get hold of atomic weapons and change the whole relationship of great and small states." It was to prevent such a possibility that the United States turned its mind to preventing proliferation. 

Peter Clausen, a historian of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has noted that for the United States the timing of this initiative was linked to the pursuit of its interventionist policies and global interests. He writes, "It was no accident that the period of the treaty negotiations corresponded to the high water mark of America's postwar global activism ... the spread of nuclear weapons in a region of vital interest to the United States could increase the risks of containment, and threaten American access to the region." 

The Soviet Union had its own interest in non-proliferation. This stemmed from concerns about possible U.S. sharing of nuclear weapons with its NATO allies-in particular West Germany, the emergence of a nuclear China, and (as with the United States) the need to limit possible threats in regions where it may choose to intervene. These concerns were well founded. During the late 1960s, the United States had deployed thousands of nuclear weapons and their components to other countries, including Canada, Cuba, Greenland, Iceland, Japan, Morocco, Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, UK, and West Germany. 

In exchange for other states promising never to build nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states at that time promised to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament. But, it was a cynical promise, at best. One American negotiator observed that pursuing negotiations did not mean achieving any disarmament agreement, "since it is obviously impossible to predict the exact nature and results of such negotiations." Bill Epstein, a veteran United Nations official in the area of arms control and disarmament, records one of the American negotiators conceding privately that the NPT was "one of the greatest con games of modern times." 

Thirty-five years later, the prospect of nuclear disarmament looks bleak. The United States is in fact setting out to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure for making these weapons. The other nuclear weapons states will no doubt follow. But all insist that others comply with the NPT. India and Pakistan, while outside the treaty, now follow the same nuclear logic: we have and shall keep, you cannot. 

The crises over the immoral and foolish nuclear ambitions of Iraq and North Korea and now Iran reveal not just the flaws in the treaty but also the mechanisms to manage it. The treaty encourages non-nuclear states to pursue nuclear energy; in fact it gives them the "inalienable right" to this expensive and dangerous technology. At the same time it recognizes this technology is integral to nuclear weapons programs and tries to prevent it from being used for this end. The contradiction could not be more stark. 

The NPT gives a special role to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its board of governors as inspectors charged with policing nuclear programs in non-nuclear weapons states. The board of governors runs the agency and its membership is determined in such a way that the nuclear weapons states are permanent members. This is the body that voted recently to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. 

Weakness of IAEA 

The history of the IAEA is revealing of its weakness in the face of the determined exercise of American power. The starkest example is provided by the events following the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. The director general and board of governors of the IAEA strongly condemned Israel's action and asked the general conference of the IAEA to consider suspending Israel from the exercise of its rights and privileges. The general conference stopped short and voted only to suspend all technical assistance to Israel. 

The following year, the IAEA general conference considered a resolution to refuse Israel's participation in the meeting. When the vote went against Israel, the United States demanded an appeal, and when this was lost the official history of the IAEA records that "The delegations of the United Kingdom and the United States walked out of the conference hall, followed closely by most other Western delegations. Before withdrawing from the general conference, the U.S. delegate announced his government would reassess its policies regarding U.S. support for and participation in the IAEA and its activities." In short, the United States would pull out of the IAEA or at least severely undermine its functioning. 

The history also notes that the United States has been and remains the largest contributor to the IAEA budget and its technical assistance programs. It came as no surprise when, a few months later, the IAEA director general and its board declared that Israel remained a full member of the IAEA, and the United States resumed its relationship with the agency. 

Israel has the biggest and most successful nuclear weapons program outside of the five major nuclear weapons states. It has not signed the NPT and is believed to maintain a stockpile of at least 100 and perhaps several hundred nuclear weapons and to possess ballistic missiles with a range up to 4,000 km (Jericho-2), as well as aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons and submarine launched nuclear cruise missiles. In sharp contrast to sustained U.S. military, economic, and political support for Israel was the use of sanctions and force against Iraq to compel compliance with arms control agreements and UN resolutions, culminating in the 2003 invasion and occupation. 

The Washington Post reported in early 2005 that the United States has been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year "to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs and detect weaknesses in air defenses." It said that "The aerial espionage is standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and is also employed as a tool for intimidation." Ashton Carter, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, said in December 2005 that he would be "surprised and disappointed" if a covert campaign against Iran's nuclear program was not already under way. 

Nuclear proliferation can at best only be slowed down in such ways. The use of force shall serve to make other states believe that if only they had the bomb they would be safe. This way leads to catastrophe. 

The alternative, non-proliferation by cooperation and consent, cannot succeed as long as the United States is insistent on retaining and improving its nuclear arsenal and allowing its allies to have these weapons. By what argument can others be persuaded to give up, or not acquire, nuclear weapons? The only hope lies in a mutual recognition that all nuclear weapons are created equally evil, and there should be no room in our world for such weapons of mass destruction. 

Zia Mian is a Pakistani physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This report is a slightly revised version of an article published in Economic and Political Weekly on February 11, 2006.

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Older Comments:
YES YES so true. I live here, and I see the arrogance of this administration daily! If only we could all agree to destroy these despicable weapons... How can we expect others not to want the bomb when we have it and are the only country who has used it!? I pray for peace, and I pray that those in other lands know that not all Americans are like this....

I wonder, where would have been the stand of USA and the West if the Muslims would have created first the A-bomb and used it say on Israel? Wouldn't have USA consuder it imperative to counter-balance that by building herself the bomb as soon as possiple? So, stop and think America, none is stupider than you. Although in my opinion constructing the bomb in the first place was irresponsible, using it was imoral and unethical. USA when it comes to Israel's security is capable of murderizing half the humans on the planet. I wonder, what God does USA worship? It's obvious to me that Israel is their God. For me Israel is the devil and USA is his servant. Unfortunately my compatriots elected a half-brained idiot, Steven Harper, as prime minister to match the American counter-part moron, George W. Bush. As long as the military is voluntary and thus is just a bunch of mercenaries I don't care for Canadian lives lost in Afghanistan. You get what you choose. Taliban was the single regime that had control over the motley of war lords that undermine today any effort to establish order. By distablizing the region as it is, no nuclear bombing would stablize it. I am not a politician, but boy I can tell you, I wouldn't want to be in Bush' shoes! It's always easier to start a brawl than to end it. However, Iran is going to develop the bomb and along with her other countries too. Earth will be a very dangerous place to live on. In the end, there will be either total nuclear anihilation of the human race or world peace will be establish and all means of war destroyed. The humans have the greatest weapon of all there are, it is their intellectual capacity to dream the dream of God. But rather since the beginning we entertain Satan's nightmares! So neo-cons, are you still praying for Armageddon? Take care what you ask for, little children, you might just be granted that.
Peace out!


It is not from devout Muslims I fear, just as you have little to fear from devout Christians. There are however madmen who claim religion in any flavor to justify their actions. These are the people we need to protect ourselves from.


We have found it necessary to impose some restrictions to the possession of firearms. One can argue how well it works but the restrictions are there to protect innocent citizens from the irresponsible use of guns. A nuclear free-for-all is in nobody's best interest. Obviously, the NPT is not perfect. Please come up with a better plan before its too late.


HALIM said:
Dear Bruce, I am a Muslim.Please do not assume..
IF Osama think..IF that..IF such thing as Osama doing Allah's will.Muslim are not allowed to touch even the hairs of non-muslims. Muslim must protect the well being of non-muslim in muslim controlled countries.Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)does not accept you as his follower if you are racist or discriminate others.Just like when Muslim protected Jews in Spain or allow Jews to live in Palestine before the British and gang established the state of Israel.Prophet Muhammad tolerance...he prayed for good health for a Jew who threw human shit into his house!

Nuclear tech for peaceful usage is a right for everyone under NPT.

Similar to the right to carry firearms.
Guns dont kill people it the persons who uses it irresponsibly who is infact is the real and only problem.

Now we have a country who has used this technology irresponsibly. that is USA against Japanese people.

i say...
What goes around comes around thats the law of nature.

what daya say...


I'm sorry but I feel morally obligated to condone even acts of piracy by my own countrymen if seemingly necessary to prevent the annihilation of anybody's nation. Why in Allah's name would Iran's president say such things? Israel's historical specialty is indulging itself to the brink of oblivion. It used to take it a couple of millennia to do this. After about three centuries it took it about three centuries to do this. After two millennia it now seems possible for Israel to manage it in maybe one or two decades. That is, in the absence of any genuine and external threat to the nation's people. And I think I maybe missed a cycle in there somewhere. But if Israel would rather be striving for a respected place in the Middle East then my thinking is maybe the situation could turn out better for basically everybody. Insha'Allah.

Yes there are inconsistencies in the US nuclear policies. I haven't seen anyone with a viable alternative plan. Mian's statement that non-proliferation by cooperation and consent is fine as long as there is trust, honesty, and cooperation. The problem is if those ideals present at all times, there would be no reason for weapons of any kind and there would not be any need for war or armies for that matter. Somebody or some entity must have nuclear capabilities as a deterent to people such as Hitler, Milosevic, or Osama. If Osama's belief is that destroying the US is doing Allah's will, does anyone believe he wouldn't use nuclear weapons against the US if he could? The Muslim world should also be concerned when Iran's leader favors wiping Israel off the earth. People who speak irresponsibly should not be in charge of nuclear weapons. I would also put Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in that same category.

Personally, I think the danger inherent in having nuclear weapons is too great to be entrusted to anyone including the United States. That said, in spite all that is said on this web-site, the US has not benefited territorially from 100 years of being the most powerful nation in the world. What would have happened if the US had taken the same advantage of its position after WWII that the Soviet Union did? We have made diplomatic mistakes, no question. The majority of these mistakes have been made from ignorance, some by arrogance, but few from malice. Can any country claim that they would have taken a better course of action, given the world we found ourselves in 1945? In spite of its failures, it still makes sense to limit the number of countries with nuclear capabilities. The more nations that are thrown in the mix, the more likely that a nuclear holocaust will be unleashed by mistake or by malintent. So far, nukes have been out for 50 years without a bomb being dropped in war except in its initiation at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The fact that the o

It's easy for me to imagine a lot more blood having been spilled between India and Pakistan, that is, if both had not had ample reason to reign in their hostility towards one another. And if Iran has nuclear weapons but never detonates them (and nobody else ever detonates Iran's nuclear weapons either) then my sons would seem considerably less likely to be sent on a colossal misadventure.

On reflection that seems to be the idea behind having such weapons around, held by nations at risk of taking action based on feelings of hostility towards one another. And why should Americans compel a nation smaller than theirs to maintain an army potentially even larger than their own? Simply to protect itself, even from various Americans?

Salaamu alaikum,

The whole world knows that the greatest threat to peace(which does not exist btw) is the US ZOG's and Israel. The greatest threat to justice is the US, Israel, Western Europe and multinational corps.

It is avery interesting article. Everyone knows that Yahood and Nasara want to control the whole world thru various devices, but no one has courage to raise any fingure on them. During World War II, I read a news item, where it was stated that Hitler said that he had a weapon which destroy everyone, but he did want to use it, because God would not then forgive him.It means that inspite of all evils, Hitler was afraid of God, and he gave up his life instead of using the weapon he had. Surely, God may forgive him. We are all waiting for God's judgement.God is not impatient, He will catch each and every mischief maker, and show His judgement. See what is happening to Sharon !

HALIM said:
America allowed Israel to have more than 200 nuclear warheads. It also allowed India to continue having nuclear bombs and Bush visited India to forge cooporation in nuclear industry, maybe improving India nuclear delivery confront Pakistan? and now after killing more than 300,000 Iraqis Bush administration is just about to declare that WMD is not found in Iraq...this is clearly a muslim massacre by a Christian leader! a long list of Christian brutality on muslims...NPT is just a big joke!..