Steven Horowitz

Denuclearization or deterrence?

America’s two political parties cannot agree on the future of nuclear proliferation. One is resigned to its growth, the other is vehemently opposed to such an outcome with Iran and North Korea. It was the US Democratic party, under the presidential leadership of Barrack H. Obama, who did next to nothing for eight years as the North Koreans advanced their pursuit of nukes. In the Middle East, Obama signed on to a spurious nuclear deal with Iran. This deal, called the JCPOA, allows Tehran to normalize its nuclear program within a short decade.

Obama’s misguided program is certainly not an instrument of denuclearization. On the contrary, Obama’s deal with Iran — and the policy of the US Democrat Party — is one of deterrence. It is a mere hope that nuclear weapons will not eventually become an element in Tehran’s nuclear program and thereby its military arsenal. But if nuclear weapons should become a part of the Iranian military, the Democratic Party is convinced that Iran can be deterred from their use by the US and its own vast nuclear weapons arsenal.

President Donald J. Trump and the US Republican Party are essentially opposed to the concept of deterrence with rogue states, like Iran and North Korea. They perceive these states as unstable and view nuclear proliferation with them as a dangerous escalation of the global geopolitical climate. Trump is looking to fix the JCPOA by eliminating its expiration clauses to make them a permanent feature. He also wants to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program and have access to all military sites in Iran. Trump’s NATO allies in Europe (especially the Germans) do not believe that such a policy outcome is possible. These US allies want to stick to the current form of the JCPOA. Trump, on the other hand, is promising to jettison the deal if it is not fixed by May 12th.

What a mess Obama has left us! And to think that this man won the Nobel Peace Prize for his espousal of a world without nuclear weapons is almost too ironic to believe. Now, however, it is Trump’s turn. He must adopt a strategy that is convincing not only to North Korea and Iran, but also to China, Russia, and our own allies in NATO. He must convince them all that the US has a plan and that it can succeed.

With North Korea, the rudiments of an all-Korean deal are certainly within the realm of credibility. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is dependent on the neutrality of said peninsula and the roll-back of conventional forces from the DMZ. The South Korean alliance with the US must end once a peace treaty is signed between the two Korean states. And a similar peace treaty between Washington and Pyongyang must work to normalize relations. In other words, the denucleariztion of the peninsula can only happen in exchange for the presence of a real security umbrella for both North and South Korea. This will also require a firm signatory commitment by the UN Security Council.

For Trump to organize a successful strategy to dramatically alter the JCPOA with Iran, there would have to be a plan to denuclearize the entire Middle East. Anything short of such a policy would never be accepted by Russia, China, and Iran. Trump would also find his own NATO allies very reluctant to alter the JCPOA without an entirely different approach — in other words, a very attractive alternative.

Enter Israel. The denuclearization of the Middle East will be perceived in Jerusalem as a direct security threat. Israel is situated as a lone, very small Jewish island in a vast sea of Muslim states. Nuclear weapons are its doomsday arsenal of last resort. Therefore, a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East must have a much larger security component than simply denuclearization. Israel must be assured that its own conventional arms position and its geographic, diplomatic and international status are highly secure before entering into such an undertaking. This will require, at the minimum, diplomatic relations between Israel and all her Muslim neighbors, both near and far, and including Iran.

But remember — nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become a certainty under the present rules of the JCPOA. Saudi Arabia has announced that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it too will have them. How many others will follow?

The days of an Israeli monopoly on nukes is fast coming to an end. In a region as unstable as the Middle East, such a scenario could easily be perceived in Jerusalem as a worse situation than not having these weapon systems at all. In other words, if you don’t believe deterrence can work in the Middle East (and who really does?), then denuclearization becomes the reasonable alternative, given that a sustainable conventional balance of power (for all) can be achieved.

Unfortunately, the world is undergoing an intense period of destabilization due to economic, political, and strategic crisis. But for a serious project of Middle East denuclearization to be successful, it will require the exact opposite of global political and military competition — international cooperation. The US cannot be the “policeman to the world” any longer. It is simply politically and fiscally impossible. The world is in search of a new geopolitical paradigm. But can the hawkish views of the Trump administration be flexible enough to master the nuance of this new international cooperation paradigm?

Time is running out. By this May 12th we will know if there will be a US-North Korean summit and if there can be an alternative to the JCPOA. If the choice is now between denuclearization and deterrence, the wise way forward is for all parties to understand that unless all are secure, no one is secure. This is true in Europe and the Far East, as well as on the Korean Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and the northern border of Israel. Conventional insecurity breeds nuclear weapons expansion. Only by cooperation from the world’s great powers can true security, for all, be achieved.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).