As recently as last month, the term “nuclear apartheid,” in all its unsavoriness, reared its ugly head again. Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency denounced the IAEA’s approval of a plan for a nuclear fuel bank as “nuclear apartheid” (because of the implied infringement on a state’s own nuclear fuel production). For his part, back in 2005 President Ahmadinejad said of nuclear technology, “We’re against ‘nuclear apartheid,’ which means some have the right to possess it, use the fuel, and then sell it to another country for 10 times its value.”

When applied to nuclear weapons, the phrase may have been first used by Jaswant Singh, an adviser on defense and foreign affairs to former Prime Minister Vajpayee. In a 1998 Foreign Affairs article titled Against Nuclear Apartheid, he spoke out against nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enforcement of a regime that, in effect, permits United Nations Security Council states to reserve nuclear weapons for themselves.

When we recall that the term “apartheid” originally referred to legalized segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1993 and, by implication, the noble struggle to roll it back in the name of equal rights, we recoil at using it to refer to matters nuclear, especially weapons programs.

Nevertheless, applying the principle of equal rights to nuclear weapons is an issue to states that aspire to develop nuclear-weapons program. Singh made that crystal clear when, in defense of India’s 1998 nuclear tests, he wrote, “India’s nuclear policy remains firmly committed to a basic tenet: that the country’s national security in a world of nuclear proliferation lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all.”

On the surface, it’s tough to argue with his premise: a nuclear-weapons program for any state that feels the need for one — or none for any states. What’s overlooked, though, is that the NPT came into force in 1970 after the UN Security Council permanent members (the United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, England, and France) had already developed nuclear weapons programs. Unstated is the assumption that had the NPT been drawn up before the dawn of nuclear weapons, it might have prevented their development.

The NPT was an attempt to make the best of a bad situation by capping the number of nuclear states at five while guaranteeing all other states that signed the treaty access to nuclear energy, as well as obligating the nuclear states to gradually disarm (though some feel it only requires that they negotiate “in good faith,” not actually disarm). What the non-nuclear states are witness to today is obstacle after obstacle being placed before a state, such as Iran, that signed the NPT and claims that it seeks to develop nuclear energy absent an allied weapons program.

Furthermore, those treaty members that possess weapons seem to be making no substantive steps to divest themselves of them. Does anyone really believe it escapes Iran’s notice that New START, the token weapons reductions of which were primarily intended as a confidence-building measure for Russia, was ratified by the United States while it also committed to spend $185 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade?

But isn’t a state such as Iran being disingenuous when it cries nuclear injustice? practitioners of realpolitik, isn’t that jejeune? After all, as Shane Maddock wrote in his 2010 book Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present, John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, said, “In the past higher civilizations have always maintained their place against lower civilizations by devising more effective weapons.” All’s fair in love and war, right?

In a recent paper for the Hudson Institute, Haves and Have-Nots: Unfairness in Nuclear Weapons Possession, Christopher Ford, one of its senior fellows, writes that the unfairness argument is “a cynical rationalization for the destabilizing pursuit of dangerous capabilities.” Regarding the NPT:

“Have nots” have surely always coveted powerful tools possessed by the “haves,” or at least wished that the “haves” did not possess them. It seems . . . to be a curiously modern phenomenon . . . for non-possessors to articulate such . . . envy and resentment in the moral language of “unfairness,” and to assume that this presumed injustice should motivate the “haves” to change their behavior.

Ford places the issue in historical perspective:

If iron had threatened to offer the Vikings an insuperable advantage, would the Skraelings [indigenous peoples of Greenland and Newfoundland — RW] have been justified in developing a . . . resentment that demanded either the sharing of iron weaponry or Viking disarmament in the name of achieving a global “iron zero”?

More to the point, he writes:

. . . the destructively “special” character of nuclear weaponry cuts against the “unfairness critique” in that it is this very specialness that seems to rob the “have/have not” issue of its moral relevance. . . . No prior technology held the potential to destroy humanity, making nuclear weapons [along with other WMD, a unique phenomenon] to which the conventional “unfairness” critique simply does not very persuasively apply.

Driving the point home, Ford writes that the “existential questions. . . . . utterly swamp the conventional playground morality of unfair ‘have/have not’ competition.’ . . . moreover, it stands to reason that an ‘unfair’ outcome that nonetheless staves off such horrors is a perfectly good solution.” In policy speak: “Questions of stability are far more important than issues of asymmetric distribution.”

Closing the circle, Ford points out that:

. . . the hollowness of the “unfairness” argument as applied to nuclear weapons [is itself an argument for the legitimacy] of nonproliferation even if complete nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved. . . . Indeed, I would submit that we lose our moral bearings if we allow “unfairness” arguments to distract us from what is really important here.

Back in 2008, left met right in, surprisingly, an editorial at the British socialist website Workers’ Liberty.

The argument that Israel has nuclear weapons and therefore, in “fairness”, so should the Arab states and Islamic powers like Iran is nonsense — an argument for the establishment in the region of a “nuclear balance of terror” such as that which existed between the USA and Russia for half a century.

It should be noted that card-carrying socialists, or progressives of any stripe, who espouse apportioning nuclear weapons should, by all rights, be stripped of their cards. To a true leftist, nothing, including injustice, justifies nuclear weapons.

So far, so good with the Workers’ Liberty editorial writer. But one paragraph later he or she has fallen into a trap. See if it sounds familiar.

All this would be true whatever the character of the Iranian regime; but it is especially true given the nature of the regime that has ruled in Iran for thirty years. It is a clerical-fascist regime: its leaders are concerned more with their imaginary supernatural world than with this. It is not inconceivable that some of those at the heart of the Iranian state power might come to think of nuclear annihilation in the way that individual homicide bombers think of their own destruction in an explosion they themselves trigger — as a glorious and sure way to reach martyrdom and the martyrs’ special place in Paradise.

As you can see, the author is compromising his or her socialist cred by repeating that element of the nuclear equal-rights argument that small states find most offensive. In other words, he or she asserts that only sane states — “rational actors” — need apply to develop weapons programs, or more accurately, retain the privilege of having their existing programs, developed outside the NPT, overlooked. Thus are Israel, India, and Pakistan (the sole claim of the last to rationality — its status as a U.S. ally in The War on Terror — rapidly eroding along with the structural integrity of its government) posed in opposition to Iran and North Korea.

As Jonathan Schell wrote:

The most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

In the end, no matter the short term benefits to security, when the West severs the ties that bind disarmament to nonproliferation, it further undermines the trust of the developing world and long-term prospects for international security.

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