Rethinking the Proliferation Cascade: Iran and Saudi Arabia

On the radar: If Iran goes, Saudis unlikely to follow; Watch for falling space rocks; Dealing with Pyongyang; Obama’s nuclear agenda; Garn and Graham on CTBT; Hanford leak; and Tracking fallout in tendons.

February 19, 2013 | Edited by Benjamin Loehrke and Alyssa Demus

Unconventional wisdom - “Conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the prime candidate to follow Iran into the nuclear club.[...] the conventional wisdom is probably wrong,” write Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine in a new report from the Center for a New American Security.

--The authors note that Saudi Arabia would be highly motivated to acquire some form of deterrent, but significant disincentives would discourage a rush to build a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia also lacks the “technological and bureaucratic wherewithal” for a crash program. Recommendations: Prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb, but prepare for the worst; Make Saudi proliferation more difficult; and Maintain leverage over Pakistan.

--Full report: “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?” by Dr. Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine. CNAS, 2013. (pdf)

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Too close for comfort - Media coverage of last week’s meteor explosion in Russia failed to mention the explosion’s proximity to some of Russia’s “most important nuclear weapons production and storage facilities.” On its own, the meteor’s impact “released energy equivalent to nearly 500 kilotons of TNT,” writes Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

No warning - “Did Russian early warning systems see the meteorite?” asks Pavel Podvig at Russian Forces. Never had a chance, he notes. Russian early warning radars are arrayed in a manner to monitor incoming nuclear warheads, not to spot a 10-ton rock hurtling from outer space. Radar analysis here.

Engaging Pyongyang - U.S. policy towards North Korea has failed to mitigate the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea over the past twenty years, and the U.S. must refocus its strategy, noted Robert Gallucci in his remarks at the ASAN Nuclear Forum.

--”Exploring the North Korean position, carefully testing the North to discern its intentions, engaging diplomatically to see if tensions can genuinely be reduced and a political settlement found is the best way to proceed. All, of course, while maintaining military readiness. [...] Our engagement must be broad with the aim to address a range of political, economic, and security issues,” Gallucci said.

Punishing Pyongyang - European Union member governments approved increased sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test. These new sanctions target North Korea’s banking sector and “ban components that could be used in ballistic missiles,” reports Reuters .

21st century nuclear policy - “There are major obstacles [to continued nuclear reductions], including a reluctant Russia, recalcitrant regimes in Iran and North Korea, an entrenched nuclear bureaucracy and a fiercely combative political opposition. But the president's plan represents the mainstream of America's security thinking today. It is likely to command broad public, military and, eventually, congressional support,” writes Joe Cirincione in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Getting back to arms control - “The U.S. no longer needs a massively redundant force to guarantee a devastating response to a Russian first strike,” writes The Baltimore Sun in an editorial urging the Obama administration to ensure nuclear arms control remains a priority in the second term. Full editorial here.

Wrong on North Korea - Arms control critics have pointed to North Korea’s nuclear test as evidence that the president’s plans for further nuclear reductions jeopardize the U.S. nuclear deterrent. This “argument does not stand up to serious scrutiny,” say Steven Pifer and Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

--The U.S.’ nuclear arsenal is vastly superior to North Korea’s capabilities both numerically and technologically. Its conventional capabilities alone could inflict “devastating damage” on North Korea. As such, Obama’s proposed nuclear reductions “would hardly embolden North Korea or any other state to challenge the United States in a manner different than it does now,” say Pifer and Pollack. Full article here.

Time for CTBT - The U.S. has much to gain from ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a treaty that would help “increase global pressure on North Korea, contain the nuclear weapons capabilities of China [...] and make it far more difficult for Tehran to develop more advanced warheads.” Sen. Jake Garn and Amb. Thomas Graham Jr. make the case for the treaty in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Tweet - @armscontrolnow: Waste Tank at Hanford Nuclear Site Is Leaking Time to modernize n-weapons cleanup, not n-weapons production complex.

RIP, Steuart Pittman - “Steuart Pittman, Head of Fallout Shelter Program, Dies at 93.” From The New York Times.


--”Nuclear Policy Challenges,” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund. February 19, 7:00-8:30 p.m. @ UW Milwaukee Institute of World Affairs. Details Here.

--”North Korea and Iran:The 21st Century’s Cuban Missile Crisis?” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund. February 21, 12:00-1:45 p.m.@ Rivers Club, 301 Grant St., Pittsburgh. Register here.

--”Iran Nuclear Talks - What Can Be Achieved in 2013,” Featuring Amb. Thomas Pickering, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Alireza Nader and Daryl Kimball. February 25 2:00-3:30 pm at the Carnegie Endowment.

--”After North Korea and Iran: How Much More Say Should Congress Have on U.S. Nuclear Exports?” Jay Solomon, Jack Spencer, Jodi Lieberman and Don MacDonald. February 25 11:45 a.m.- 1:30 p.m. @Rayburn House Office Building. RSVP here.


Testing and tendons - What do achilles tendons and nuclear weapons testing have in common? Apparently a lot. Scientists used “used fallout from nuclear bomb tests as biological tracers” to measure the level of carbon in people’s muscles and identify the age of muscle tissue in their achilles tendons.

--"What we see in the tendons [is] that they actually have a memory of the bomb pulse,’ says lead author Katja Heinemeier, a senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen. This means that the tendon tissue in those samples was at least several decades old. From these results, the scientists concluded that tendon tissue renewal is almost nonexistent in adults,” reports Audrey Carlsen at NPR.