By Riad Kahwaji*
Sanctions and threats by the United States and other super powers have failed to deter North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, and hence became the fourth country to possess both capabilities outside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. North Korea represents yet another failure in global counter-proliferation efforts and sends an encouraging signal to other rising regional actors with expansionist aspirations or fears of existential threats to follow suit.
North Korea is now catching up with China, India, and Israel in accumulating an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can travel across continents and pose a serious threat to countries worldwide. India and Pakistan went public with their nuclear capabilities and bomb testing in 1998, both ignoring international sanctions that proved useless.
Israel in turn is believed to have conducted its first nuclear test in 1979 and has since built a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons along with its series of Jericho ballistic missiles. The United States and the West have chosen to not acknowledge Israel’s nuclear arsenal and to support Tel Aviv’s policy of discretion in the hope of preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. However, the next candidate that would likely join the nuclear club in the next few years is from the volatile Middle East region – namely Iran.
Iran’s nuclear program is now under restrictions imposed by treaty that Tehran signed in 2015 with the five UNSC permanent members plus Germany. The agreement – otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – imposed several measures that affected Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons anytime soon. But the pact ignored Iran’s ballistic missiles program that continues to make progress, and it is only a matter of time before it catches up with North Korea’s program to delivers an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Tehran continues to pursue an aggressive expansionist policy and its leaders have threatened to walk away from JCPOA if the United States continues to impose sanctions on them.
The UN Security Council’s five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and UK – today find themselves facing a serious dilemma: How to deter a nuclear-armed country regardless of its size? Will threat or imposition of sanctions work all the time? What historical lessons revealed thus far is that sanctions rarely prevent countries from seeking nuclear capabilities and even acquiring them.
Once any of these states become nuclear, they will have no problem throwing their weight around and even threatening a global super power. Whether threats are for real or just means to enhance deterrence is irrelevant when it comes to public opinion and national threat perceptions. Smaller nuclear-capable regional powers like North Korea are now able to step into the international scene to claim more rights they feel they deserve, within their respective regions and even beyond.
Seeking nuclear arms is either generated by the perception of existential threats or by expansionist and hegemonic ambitions. There are several countries that have the know-how and the capability to build nuclear weapons but have willingly chosen not to follow this path – like Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and others. Force was only used against two Arab countries, Iraq and Syria, to prevent them from acquiring nuclear capabilities. Israeli warplanes destroyed in 1981 Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, ending Saddam Hussein’s quest for nuclear capability. In 2007, Israel once again used its air power to implement its policy of preventing its Arab foes from acquiring nuclear weapons by destroying a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor near Deir ez-Zor in the eastern part of the country.
The only country ever to succumb to sanctions and agree to give up its programs to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was Libya, and this occurred at the end of 2003, few months after the United States invaded Iraq under the pretext of removing Baghdad’s WMD program.
Many analysts believe late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi acted out of fear that he would be the next target for the U.S. after Iraq and subsequently decided to surrender his WMD arsenal. It should be noted that Gaddafi’s WMD comprised of mostly chemical weapons and his nuclear program was in early stages. Countries like North Korea may also attach significance to how the Gaddafi regime did not manage to survive long after it had given up its WMD programs.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that once a country builds nuclear weapons out of a heightened threat perception or for aggressive expansionist objectives it will be almost impossible to force it to fully disarm through sanctions or warnings.
Also, based on India-Pakistan experience, not even sanctions could convince a country with high threat perception to stop its program. Both countries possessed the nuclear technology for years before they decided the timing of their respective nuclear breakout.
Same could be said about North Korea, and possibly about Iran in the future. Tehran could decide one day to abandon the JCPOA and within a short period would be ready to conduct a maiden public nuclear weapons test exercise. Tehran’s conventional and asymmetrical defense capabilities have doubled in the past few years making any preventative military measures to stop its nuclear program very complex and costly. Hence, it is a matter of time and political circumstances before Iran joins the nuclear club.
It should be pointed out that joint defense pacts between nuclear super powers like the United States with allies in the Arab world or Asia could be modified to include a nuclear umbrella as a means to assure these countries and discourage them from seeking nuclear weapons. However, statements by American and Western leaders favoring isolationist policies and reducing commitment to allies subsequently undermines trust between the partners and will prompt some countries to develop their own independent nuclear capabilities to counter their adversaries.
The challenge facing the international community today is how to curb what appears to be an imminent nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the Far East. Rivalry amongst UN Security Council members and East-West strategic competition has created loopholes that have strategically jeopardized global counter-proliferation efforts.
Even international bodies like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) failed to fully strip the Syrian regime of its massive arsenal of chemical weapons despite extensive work in 2014. The Syrian regime has used chemical weapons several times since then including a major attack with nerve gas in April 2017 that prompted a U.S. military strike against Shiayrat air base suspected of stocking Syrian nerve agents. The UN Security Council failed to take any action against Syria due to complex effects and implications of resurgent U.S.-Russia geopolitical rivalries.
Hence, the WMD counter-proliferation regime has not worked and continues to fail without practical solutions in place to address them. Perhaps it would take a nuclear war – which mankind was able to survive – to have a proliferation regime that the international community would uphold and enforce effectively.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.