After Nixing the Iran Deal, Is Containment Our Only Option?

The path to today’s problems with Iran passed through the University of Chicago squash court where, on December 2, 1942, for 4.5 minutes, physicist Enrico Fermi, making calculations on a slide rule, achieved the controlled release of energy from an atomic nucleus. Historian Richard Rhodes says that Fermi and his colleagues were risking “a small Chernobyl in the midst of a crowded city.”

Humanity was already on the path to the dangerous present in 1918 when the British physicist Ernest Rutherford, who was criticized for missing a meeting about anti-submarine warfare, said, “I have been engaged in experiments which suggest that the atom can be artificially disintegrated. If this is true, it is of far greater importance than a war.”

So, when wondering about what can be done about Iran’s nuclear-weapons aspirations — and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons facts — remember this: Some advocates of the Iran nuclear agreement thought its purpose was to block “all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb,” which was Barack Obama’s formulation when his goal was to dismantle the infrastructure of Iran’s program. Other advocates of the deal thought it was prudent to pretend to think this. The realistic purpose, however, was the more modest one of making the “pathways” longer and steeper, in the hope that internal Iranian ferments would begin to make that nation less menacing by the time it began to make nuclear weapons. 

Although much sophistication has been added over the decades, the basic recipe for building nuclear weapons comes from the 1940s, and for ballistic-missile technology from the 1950s. The Soviet Union was an almost prostrate nation with a shattered society when, just 51 months after the guns fell silent on V-E Day (May 8, 1945), it detonated its first nuclear weapon in August 1949. China was an almost entirely peasant society, with a population of 694 million (about half of today’s), when in 1964 it detonated a nuclear weapon. In 1998, Pakistan, with a per capita income of $470, acquired such weapons. 

Nuclear nonproliferation efforts have been more effective than seemed possible 60 years ago. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy cited “indications” that by 1964 there would be “10, 15, or 20” nuclear powers. As president, he said that by 1975 there might be 20 such powers. Today, sanctions can increase the price Iran pays for attempting to acquire nuclear weapons; Israel can assassinate scientists working in Iran’s nuclear program. If, however, Iran wants such weapons as intensely as its decades of costly efforts suggest, it will get them. 

 Read more at National Review

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