Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Lessons from Vela

August 11th, 2010 · 9 Comments

Yesterday’s cross-country plane ride gave me the chance to catch up with Jon Lee Anderson’s sobering dispatch from Iran, which pretty much cements the notion that the Islamic Republic will never give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Not that I didn’t already know that on some level—as Anderson so eloquently puts it, Iran seems hard-wired to strive for membership in the global elite:

In the Iranian imagination, a nuclear weapon is essential if the country is to assume its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. Iran once controlled a vast empire that included both Georgia and Tajikistan, and Iranians are proud nationalists, extremely sensitive about what they see as their country’s historic humiliations by Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. At the same time, they hold deep-seated feelings of cultural superiority over their neighbors. This has made for a prevailing world view that is at times both alarmingly naïve and toxically presumptuous.

In an attempt to counter the pessimism I felt after reading Anderson’s piece, I scurried back to the history books to learn all I could about South Africa’s decision to give up its nuclear-weapons program. South Africa did so at an incredibly late stage in the development process, perhaps even after conducting a failed atmospheric test that was detected by an American Vela satellite. (It’s also possible that an Israeli test in South African territory was to blame.)

Yet in reviewing the key lessons to be learned from South Africa’s dalliance with nukes, I came away even less convinced that Iran can ever be muscled or cajoled into abandoning its weapons program. The whole list of lessons is worth reading, just because they’re all so relevant to today’s situation. But this one really stuck out at me:

Although international political isolation may be an instrument to contain individual cases of nuclear proliferation, a point in such an isolation campaign may be reached where it actually becomes counter-productive and really pushes the would-be proliferator towards full proliferation. In the case of South Africa, this point was probably reached at the cut-off by the US of contractual supplies of fuel to both the SAFARI and Koeberg reactors together with the punitive financial measures applied by the US Administration at the time. The little leverage the US had over the South African nuclear programme, was lost.

As previously discussed on Microkhan, South Africa’s situation differed from Iran’s in several key aspects. Not only was South Africa not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty during its development heyday, but it also had some curious notions about using nukes for peace—specifically for large-scale mining operations.

(Image via the Nuclear Weapons Archive)

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Well, the idea of using nuclear weapons for civil engineering projects is nothing unique to South Africa. A lot of the Manhattan Project guys had similar ideas:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Plowshare

    The for plain weirdness, nothing beats the Orion project, which would have had spacecraft ride the shock waves from nuclear detonations:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

  • Jordan

    Oops. Total repost.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I actually wrote about Orion in this month’s Wired–may post some bonus material tomorrow:

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_future_ferrell/2/

  • scottstev

    Combine Anderson’s read with Jeff Goldberg’s bleak take from the Israeli side, and you really start to worry about how interesting things will get in the next 2-3 years. One would hope that from a strictly pragmatic approach, Israel would achieve a permanent resolution to the West Bank in order to bolster its international standing. But I’m doubtful it will be able resolve its internal contradictions before starting (assuming Israel goes ahead with a unilateral strike) a major regional war.

    Now let me back away from further political discussion, and return to the founding charter. Being an obvious amateur, I’m not sure how feasible a strike would be against a deeply buried, widely disbursed nuclear program. According to Goldberg’s sources, the strike appears at the far limits of Israel’s capabilities.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: To your second point, I think there’s another lesson from Vela that applies here: The ability to use effective military action diminishes greatly as the target nation’s wealth and sophistication increases. There is simply no comparison between Iraq of the early ’80s, when Israel was able to take out Hussein’s nukes program with a single strike, and Iran of today. I find it difficult to believe that Iran has concentrated its capabilities into a single site, and so multiple strikes would be necessary–strikes based on tremendous intelligence, and carried out with the utmost precision. I’d have to guess that the odds of that happening are vanishingly small.

  • captured shadow

    It seems to me that any country sophisticated enough to have nuclear weapons has too much at stake to be able to use them. Maybe North Korea is poor enough and crazy enough to launch a first strike, but the threat of retaliation would be a big deterrent. (Unless they attacked say Burma, who exactly would stand up for Burma? China maybe?). Iran would not send a missile against Israel, because they would face too much retaliation from Israel’s nukes. Iran wants nukes so they can retaliate.
    Or Iran could try to give a bomb to their proxies who might try to sneak it in to Israel and blow it up car bomb style, but Israel would still retaliate…..

  • ADW

    I wonder how much Iran’s desire to have nuclear power is a tat-for-tat at Israel. Ferocious debate aside, it seems like a bit of a double standard, which makes me uneasy.

  • Brian Moore

    You have probably seen this, but:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfpQNfcRE1o&feature=player_embedded

    Also, thank you so much for covering Orion. It’s probably the funniest thing ever — that involved exploding lots of nukes. One of Larry Niven’s sci fi novels had it as a major plot point (Footfall maybe?).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @captured shadow: I agree with you that Iran can be deterred. Contrary to a lot of rumors that have circulated about, I don’t think the Iranian hardliners have any interest in hastening the end of the world for religious purposes. The nation simply wants a place at the international table alongside other self-proclaimed rising powers.

    @ADW: Agreed, I too rarely see Israel’s nuclear capabilities discussed in mainstream news stories. There is one key legal difference, though, and that’s the fact that Iran signed the NPT, and Israel didn’t.

    @Brian Moore: Hadn’t seen that brilliant (and disturbing) clip. I didn’t realize just how many atmospheric tests took place during the mid-1950s. The denizens of the South Pacific have every right to be furious with us.

    As for Orion, I still can’t believe it was taken seriously for such a long period of time. Though I guess that goes to show how attitudes toward nuclear power changed once the threat of global annihilation became very real. (I think the Cuban Missile Crisis was a key turning point.)

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