Beyond the Iran deal: nuclear proliferation is a myth

Merrily we roll along. ru:Участник:Digr via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

After nearly two years of incremental and painstaking negotiations, a full deal on Iran’s nuclear programme has at last been struck. In a feat of diplomacy and patience, Iran and the P5+1 – the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – have managed to construct a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activity and the sanctions imposed on it.

Early reactions deemed this a “new chapter of hope” in more ways than one; not just a victory for diplomacy, but a major victory in the efforts against nuclear weapons proliferation.

This is misguided. In reality, even a nuclear-armed Iran would not have meant that a nuclear weapons proliferation among states was underway.

Proliferation, after all, means rapid spread. And whereas nuclear weapons have proliferated “vertically”, with existing nuclear states adding to their existing nuclear arsenals, there has not been a “horizontal” nuclear weapons proliferation – that is, a fast spread of these weapons to new nations.

On the contrary, nuclear weapons have spread slowly across the world, even though academics, politicians and the media frequently discuss horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation as if it was a matter of fact.

Reality check

Currently, there are only nine states in the world with nuclear weapons among the UN’s 193 members: the US (since 1945), Russia (since 1949), the UK (since 1952), France (since 1960), China (since 1964), Israel (since 1966, unofficial), India (since 1974), Pakistan (since 1998) and North Korea (since 2006).

Other countries have dropped off the list. South Africa joined the nuclear club in the 1980s, but dismantled its weapons in the early 1990s. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union when they became independent states after the Cold War, but they transferred their nuclear arsenal to Russia in the 1990s.

In other words, only a handful of countries in Europe, Asia and North America possess these weapons, while Africa, Australasia and Latin America are devoid of nuclear weapons states.

In fact, the number of nuclear weapons states has actually decreased ever since the 1990s. And even though the Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan confirmed the existence of a global nuclear black market which purportedly provided nuclear technology, expertise, and designs to various countries, including Libya, no horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation has taken place.

Talking it down: Mohammad Zarif and Federica Mogherini. 'Laurent Gilleron/EPA'

Libya eventually voluntarily renounced its secret nuclear weapons efforts in December 2003. Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan have also shelved their nuclear weapons programs.

As of now, there are 31 countries with nuclear power plant units in operation; countries such as Australia, Canada, and Japan are widely believed to have the technological sophistication to become nuclear weapons states in relatively short amount of time should they want to – but they have not pursued that path.

In other words, even though there have been opportunities for nuclear weapons proliferation across a range of new states, such a development has not materialised.

All of the available evidence thus unanimously suggests that no horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation has taken place throughout the 70 years that these weapons have existed. Claims to the contrary lack basis, whether they are made for political or economic reasons, sheer ignorance, or for any other purposes. Horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation is a bogeyman that does not exist. If we are to devise sound strategies and policies regarding nuclear weapons we have to ground them in existing reality. Recognising that there is no horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation is a good place to start.