Doomsday warning

Print edition : February 09, 2007

The world stands on the brink of a Second Nuclear Age, with a frightening build-up in nuclear weapons in different countries and a possible attack on Iran.

So inured have middle class Indians become to the tangible possibility of mass destruction that nuclear weapons can wreak upon the world even today that most of our media blacked out a "mainstream" Western-origin story pertaining to the issue, which quoted The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), one of the world's most respected journals on science and security.

On January 17, the board of directors of the Bulletin, established by University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, moved the Doomsday Clock forward by two minutes to five minutes to midnight, symbolically representing the end of civilisation as we know it.

This setting symbolises the gravest threats to the world in more than 20 years, some even worse than during the scariest moments of the Cold War in the early 1980s, when the United States decided to station Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe. The BAS board says:

"We stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices... The second... era, unlike the dawn of the first nuclear age... is characterised by... porous national borders, rapid communications that facilitate the spread of technical knowledge, and expanded commerce in potentially dangerous dual-use technologies and materials."

Among the threats cited are North Korea's nuclear test last October, "Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia... "

That the phrase "military utility of nuclear weapons" occurs in the middle of the sentence does not diminish its importance. Growing reliance in the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) on these mass-destruction weapons for security, and plans for their actual use, constitutes one of the most dangerous threats in recent times. We, in India, have developed this reliance into an addiction - after long speaking the truth against all that claptrap about deterrence, namely, that these mass-annihilation weapons do not give security.

All thinking Indians should be concerned about nuclear affairs, not least because they live in one of the world's two regions where a nuclear confrontation appears most likely to break out. (The other is West Asia, which is fast replacing South Asia as the world's most dangerous place.)

The BAS statement is an eye-opener. It is the result of serious deliberations by the Bulletin's directors, in consultation with its board of advisers, which includes 18 Nobel laureates. The Bulletin has consistently promoted nuclear weapons abolition. The Clock carries exceptional credibility. Created in 1947, it is a widely recognised indicator of the world's vulnerability to nuclear war. The last time it was reset was five years ago, following the crumbling of arms control treaties, the September 11 attacks and the build-up to the Iraq crisis. Now, the Clock has been reset for the 18th time.

The five-minutes-to-midnight warning is a horrible reminder that the world may be edging close to a nuclear holocaust. The five-minute interval is not the worst-ever warning. That was in 1953, when the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) tested hydrogen bombs.

What makes the present danger particularly ominous is that it comes on top of a number of negative developments, including a significant weakening of the global nuclear order based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the failure of the last NPT Review Conference (2005), the pursuit of "Star Wars"-style ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme and the Proliferate Security Initiative by the U.S., nuclear and missile development and renovation undertaken by other nuclear weapons sales (NWSs), and the eruption of new nuclear dangers in the Asian continent, stretching from the Persian Gulf in the West, to the Pacific in the East.

North Korea's walkout from the NPT and its test need no comment. Iran's nuclear programme, and the West's pressure to dismantle it, have produced a dangerous standoff in West Asia. Between the continent's two flanks lie India and Pakistan, which are reportedly stockpiling fissile material and furiously preparing to deploy nuclear weapons. They have refused to negotiate nuclear restraint.

India's nuclear deal with the U.S. will allow it to expand its nuclear arsenal and resume global civilian nuclear commerce. So long as India and Pakistan amass nuclear weapons, the possibility of Armageddon cannot be dismissed.

A late December study by Alan Robock of Rutgers University says that an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war will lead to global climate change beyond anything "experienced in recorded history." An exchange of 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs in a subtropical climate would produce "large and long-lasting" climate change, including 10 per cent less rain around the world.

Among the inevitable effects will be "a severe disruption of global agricultural production" and a weakening of the global hydrological cycle, with a decline in rainfall, snow and other forms of precipitation.

However, today's nuclear threats are not Asia-specific. Some of the worst originate from the world's 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2,000 of them on high alert. Ninety five per cent of the 27,000 are with the five NPT-recognised NWSs. The U.S. is aggressively developing a new nuclear warhead (the first in nearly two decades), finding new uses for existing weapons designs, and most ominously, building BMD.

Russia and China are test-flying new missiles. China has just tested an attack system that can shoot down a space satellite. This will intensify the militarisation of space, begun by the U.S. Britain is renovating its "Trident". France is testing long-range missiles.

As if that were not enough, "more than 1,400 metric tonnes of highly enriched uranium and approximately 500 tonnes of plutonium are distributed worldwide at some 140 sites." No less menacing is the growing interest in "civilian nuclear power development in countries around the world, [which] raises further concerns about the availability of nuclear materials... expansion of nuclear power increases the risks of nuclear proliferation."

There are two other reasons why Indians should be alarmed. Through the 2005 deal with the U.S., India has become an integral and important part of the process of restructuring of the international nuclear order. Secondly, India has developed an unhealthy relationship with Israel, which is perhaps in its most bellicose avatar today.

Should Israel attack Iran's nuclear installations, probably with tactical nuclear weapons, as reported by The Sunday Times, India will have become complicit in the world's failure to prevent a catastrophe, with the entire West Asian region going up in flames.

It simply will not do to dismiss the story. Twenty years ago, the same paper broke a hugely important story on Israel's nuclear programme, quoting Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at Israel's Dimona enrichment plant. Vanunu was abducted by Israeli agents and tried. He spent 18 years in jail - a confirmation, if one was needed, that the story was correct.

The Sunday Times now says Israel has plans to attack three sites: Iran's uranium enrichment plant (Natanz), heavy water reactor (Arak), and uranium gas-conversion facility (Isfahan). It also says that Israel Air Force (IAF) pilots have recently flown to Gibraltar to train for the 2,000-mile round trip to Iranian targets. The Israeli Army declined comment on this. Former IAF Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu is quoted as saying "the defence establishment is prepared for all possibilities"; the IAF has been preparing for long-range strikes "for many years".

It stands to reason that Israeli leaders, who see Iran's nuclear programme as an "existential threat" comparable only to the Holocaust, would want to eliminate it. Israel did just that to Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, although there was no perceived threat from Iraq; nor were Israel-Iraq relations one-tenth as acrimonious as Iran-Israel relations today.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has written two reports saying that the U.S. too is considering such an attack. Another indicator is President George W. Bush's recent Cabinet reshuffle and his new Iraq war plans. Bush removed Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who last April said:

"Our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade."

Bush has inducted more troops into Iraq and gone on the offensive against "hostile operations" by Iran and Syria in Iraq. A key element is to "counter Iranian and Syrian action that threatens the coalition forces." All this further ratchets up the pressure on Iran and makes an attack likelier.

A military strike by Israeli and/or the U.S. will not target Iran's nuclear installations alone. To prevent retaliation, Iran's military capacities would have to be degraded. This will precipitate a conflagration and almost certainly lead to a search for nuclear weapons by other states - without doubt, Iran itself.

The use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran, which are liable to produce tens of thousands of casualties, will break the taboo against their use, in place since 1945. That would be an unspeakably grave tragedy.

We must heed the Doomsday Clock.
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