The insurgency in Iraq was the main focus of attention for United States political and military leaders seeking to prosecute the war on terror during 2005. But as the year progressed, their concern with developments in Iran increased, to the extent that the possibility of military action against the Tehran regime over its nuclear plans whether by the United States itself, or by its close ally Israel started to be seriously discussed.
This developing tension has reached an acute stage in the opening days of 2006. The decision of the administration led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to restart research into uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant has provoked the United States and Britain to warn that Iran risks referral to the United Nations Security Council, with the possibility of sanctions being imposed.
More immediately, an emergency session of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is likely to be called, especially if a forthcoming report by the IAEAs director-general Mohamed ElBaradei confirms that he has failed to persuade Iran to share the full details of its nuclear programmes.
Words and deeds
The background to the increasing controversy over Irans nuclear development includes a fundamental reality: the current United States administration is deeply opposed to any acquisition by Iran of material that would allow Tehran to produce its own nuclear weapons. Much of the wider neo-conservative community in Washington also sees it as unacceptable for Iran even to get as far as having a civil nuclear-power programme that involves indigenous enrichment of uranium. The fact that such a process could quite easily lead to further refinement to weapons-grade quality is seen in Washington as far too risky to contemplate.
This attitude involves a departure from the principles of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) that came into force in 1970. This allows non-nuclear weapon states to develop civil nuclear power but not weapons, with IAEA inspections being available to prevent cheating. The current US outlook is that the NPT process should no longer apply to those states it describes as rogue or part of the axis of evil. This attitude helped ensure that the NPT review conference in New York in May 2005 achieved so little.
One of the problems for the United States in maintaining this hawkish outlook is that it comes across in much of the world as very much a case of do as we say, not as we do. The United States itself maintains a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, which it has supplemented in recent years with the deployment of a new type of weapon: the earth-penetrating or bunker-buster bomb that burrows underground before detonating, destroying facilities such as deeply-buried chemical or biological weapon stores (see Americas nuclear stealth war, 10 February 2005).
It is not actually fair to see the United States as the only culprit, given that Russia would want to develop new nuclear weapons if funding allowed, that France and China are modernising their own smaller nuclear forces and that there is every chance that Britain will replace its Trident nuclear force within the next few years.
Even so, the United Statess difficulties with Iran have made it the most determined to change the NPT bargain, whose essence lies in the treatys Article 6 (new states dont go nuclear but, in return, old nuclear states progressively give up their arsenals). Until the early part of 2005, there were reliable reports that the US was starting to develop a new bunker-busting nuclear bomb, known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP); but Congress cut the funding for this in November 2005, and one result has been a growing belief that the United States will not now try to modernise its existing nuclear weapons or develop new types.
This belief draws support from the fact that most of the old infrastructure developed in the US in the 1950s and 1960s to develop and build nuclear weapons was shut down after the end of the cold war (although this had more to do with concerns over the safety of the facilities rather than a political decision to disarm). It is further reinforced by the Congressional funding ban on the RNEP.
But recent information challenges the assumption that the nuclear age is over or at least in abeyance as far as the United States is concerned. A revealing article in the leading military journal Janes International Defence Review (IDR, January 2006) provides details of plans for upgrading and replacing existing nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. There are also indications of the close working relationship now existing between the big US nuclear-research laboratories and their smaller British counterpart at Aldermaston; it is evident that the latter is already looking to develop a replacement for the Trident system, in collaboration with the US, although the British government continues to claim that no decision has been made.
One of the recent significant changes is in the seemingly innocuous Stockpile Stewardship Programme, established in 1993 to ensure that the many thousands of nuclear warheads in the US nuclear arsenal would continue to function rather than decay. It now appears that the programme goes well beyond this in that, as the IDR reports, it also underpins the next stage in the maintenance of the nuclear stockpile the development of a new family of nuclear weapons that will keep the ultimate nuclear option workable, [i.e. fighting a nuclear war] while also making it less costly to maintain and more secure.
Americas nuclear arsenal
The US nuclear arsenal has four components. Three are known as legs of a strategic triad of nuclear weapons based on land (intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the 500 Minuteman III missiles now deployed), sea (like the Trident submarine-launched missile) and air (long-range aircraft such as the B-2 stealth bomber). The fourth category is that of tactical nuclear weapons, less destructive weapons that might be delivered by strike aircraft. Although smaller than the strategic weapons, many of them greatly exceed the destructiveness of the crude Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs that together killed directly around 160,000 people.
Across the whole of the nuclear arsenal, modernisation is the order of the day. The Minuteman III long-range land-based missile has recently been upgraded so that it will be able to be kept deployed for up to thirty years, yet thought is already being given to a replacement known as the Land-Based Strategic Deterrent, that could still be deployed in 2060. Similarly, the Trident nuclear missile still has well over a decade of deployment ahead of it, yet a replacement is being planned.
This may be the first example of an entirely new nuclear weapon produced under what is termed the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme (RRW) and started only in May 2005. An agreed design for an RRW warhead for a Trident replacement could be agreed in 2006, with the first warhead ready by 2012, provided Congress approves.
That is not certain, given Congressional opposition to the RNEP (bunker-buster) earlier in the year, but even here the designers are in a position to hedge their bets. In its desire to be able to destroy deeply-buried targets, the US air force is developing a conventional bunker-buster, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator being built by Boeing. This is expected to have a number of features that could be adapted for use in a nuclear-armed version, speeding up the process of developing such a bomb in the future.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
A collection of Paul Rogerss Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)
As to the British involvement, if an early example of the RRW programme is a replacement for the Trident warhead, this would suit the British very well, with the prospect of close collaboration and maybe even the sharing of some development costs.
What this means overall is that Britain is likely to play a significant part in the long-term future of the United Statess nuclear arsenals. If the British version of Trident is replaced in ten to fifteen years time, then its successor will have a deployment span of at least twenty-five years, stretching Britains nuclear intentions some forty years into the future. In the case of the United States, a successor to the recently modernised Minuteman is already being considered, and this means that the US nuclear-weapons industry is looking fifty years ahead.
It is all a very long way from the requirements of the non-proliferation treaty indeed that is now treated as little more than a joke in Washington. The problem such plans and attitudes carry is that they cannot be reconciled with firm opposition to countries such as Iran wanting to develop their own nuclear forces. The hypocrisy factor is a notorious feature of the world of nuclear weapons, but the fact that the US and Britain are looking ahead as many as forty to fifty years does give it an added potency. The way that these states can contemplate their own nuclear-weapons modernisation while blithely scorning Iran for even considering the development of an integrated civil nuclear-power programme reveals a policy stance rapidly becoming untenable.
Washington, needless to say, sees things very differently. If Israel does not get there first, the United States may launch military action against Iran in the fairly near future, just as its own new nuclear-weapons plans are leaving the drawing-board. The contradiction may not be obvious inside the Beltway bubble, but it is obvious in Tehran and across much of the world.