Nuclear bomb domino effect: Nuclearumbrella, make your own bomb, or be afraid?
- April 2, 2022,
Taipei: Two events occurring in parallel are causing countries to re-evaluate their security in the context of nuclear weapons: (1) Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts, and (2) the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This article will examine the consequences of these events for some countries of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
IRAN’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS
By 2025, the Islamic Republic of Iran, run by apocalyptic Shia mullahs, will have a nuclear weapon.If the nuclear talks going on between Iran the P5+1 countries (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) fail, then Iran will continue to refine uranium to weapons grade level.Currently, they have the technology to deliver a nuclear weapon on five types ofballistic missiles (Shahab 3 [based on the NorthKorean No Dong medium range ballistic missile], Emad-1, Emad-2, Sejjil,and Khorramshar[based on the North Korean Musudan]) and land attack cruise missiles (Soumarbased on the Russian air-launched AS-15). See Figure 1 below.
Iran mayconduct an underground test of a nuclear weapon in one of their remote provinces much like other nuclear powers have done. The USconducted100 atmospheric and 921 undergroundtests in Nevada.If the negotiations result inan agreement on a newJoint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)and Iran does not continue its clandestine weapons nuclear weapons development program, Iran delays development and production until after 2025. The 2015 JCPOA agreement also allowed Iran to resume nuclear weapons development efforts after 2025.In summary, Iran will have the capability to build a bomb after 2025 and deliver it as far away as Eastern Europe and most of India, based on its medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) (see Defense Intelligence Agency map below).
Given the consequences of a new JCPOA agreement and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, non-nuclear weapons states—specifically in the Middle East—have three basic choices.They either (1) secure a nuclear power’s promise to protect them in event Iran attacks them—or threatens to attack them with nuclear weapons,(2) they develop their own weapons, or (3)do nothing and hope for the best. Ukraine’s experience suggests hoping for the best would not be a good choice.Nuclear weapons-armed China and Russia probably would not be on a list of potential allies against Iran; China and Russia have extensive military and economic ties to Iran.
The United Kingdom and France are not in the nuclear umbrella business.India also has extensive economic ties with Iran and would most likely decline interference; they have their own challenges with China and Pakistan. Pakistan might be an option, but they also are beholden to China who has friendly relations with Iran. We are running out of options.
The only two options are the US and Israel.Israel would be taking a great risk by offering to provide a nuclear umbrella to Gulf countries since the Gulf countries could draw Israel into a nuclear war with Iran in which every statesuffers great losses. Israel could offer to help these countries build their nuclear weapons capability, but punitive UN Security Council actions would deter them from pursuing this course of action.Additionally, helping Muslim countries build nuclear weapons assumes that these countries will stay friendly to Israel—which is problematic. TheIsrael option should be categorized as “unlikely.”
A US option to protect Arab Muslim countries with a nuclear umbrella would come with conditions, such as denying the nuclear umbrella due to human rights violations, orconducting military operations (as in Yemen) with which the US disagrees, or not pumping enough oil to satisfy the political needs of the American administration (currently happening).For Arab Muslim nations, a US nuclear umbrella would come with unpalatable caveats (conditions). The US nuclear umbrella option also appears to be “mostly unlikely.”
At the same time, Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are threatenedby Iranian conventional naval threats to use anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) to close the Arabian Gulf (see DIA map below). Iran also threatens these regimes by Iran’s use of terrorist proxies that destabilize the region’s security such as attacks on their infrastructure.
What other options could these countries pursue?The obvious option is for them is to develop their own nuclear weapons program.They might be already moving in this direction as they are investing heavily in commercial nuclear power programs.Currently, the United Arab Emirates has one nuclear power plant (Barakah) onlineand three more in development. Saudi Arabiaplans to construct two large nuclear power reactors as well as several desalinization and research reactors.
Since at least 2011, Saudi Arabia officially and unofficially has stated to American and western diplomats that “[w]e cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”This promise has been repeated again in 2013 by Prince Turki Al-Faisal in a Washington DC speech where he said “it is in our interest that the Iranian leadership does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so will make nuclear arms proliferation in the Middle East the norm.” From an analysis of Saudi’s nuclear strategy in 2014, the Washington Institute explains that “King Abdullah has already made clear to his U.S. counterparts that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, the kingdom will do so as well, whatever its NPT obligations.” As recently as 2020, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, reinforced their position by indicating that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi nuclear armament was “definitely an option”.
An interim option to acquiring nuclear weapons is to buy nuclear weapons from a sympathetic state, such as Pakistan.Even though China has influence over Pakistan, it might not be strong enough to stop them from selling a few nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia since Pakistan has a large Sunni Muslim population (~85% of the population) and Iran is ruled by Shi’a mullahs.
Israel most likely would not sell or provide nuclear weapons to a Muslim state. Such weapons could be used against Israel in a future conflict.Sunni Islamic jihad against Israel is a continuing concern.In 1981, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) consisting of 56 countries (largest voting block of nations in the United Nations) declared “Jihad” against Israel. In 2019, the OICre-affirmed the Jihad declaration: “The Conference endorsed the outcome documents including resolutions of the previous OIC Summits.”
China is the nuclear superpower gloating about its power in Asia with its nuclear side-kick North Korea.The recent events in Ukraine have sparked debates about nuclear weapons that have not been discussed so openly by politicians in Japan, South Korea and other nations in the region.
According to recent reports, the PRC is building an additional 300 ICBM silos at four main sites: Hami, Yumen and Ordos, and Jilantai (see map below).
Prior to this rapid build-up, China was estimated to have 350 warheads on operational missiles. With the additional 300 ICBM silos, the PLA could add900 more warheads—the DF-41 ICBM (silo version) is expected to have three independently targeted warheads for each missile. These silos give China the potential of having 1,200 nuclear warheads within a few years. Additionally, according to a recent DOD report on China’s military, China has a “nascent triad” meaning it can deliver nuclear weapons by land (ICBMs), by sea (SLBMs) and by air (ALBMs). Most importantly, no international agreement restricts the PRC’s number of nuclear warheads nor its number of delivery systems. Unlike the Russians and the US, China can continue to build an unlimited number.
Attempts by the US to engage the PRC’s CCP on nuclear arms control has been rebuffed.As the CCP builds initial parity and then possibly superiority to the number of nuclear weapons that the US as well as Russia (each have ~2,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons), the effect will be a “checkmate” situation where the US will be deterred from militarily engaging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a conflict.Any country that is not protected by a nuclear umbrella will be vulnerable. Japan, Republic of Korea, and Australiahave US security guarantees.
Since 1951 the Philippines and the US have a U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treatythat states “[f]or the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include anarmed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territoriesunder its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” However, US-Philippine’s relations have been warm and cold.For example, during the Obama administration, the US provided no support to the rightful Philippine claim against the PRC that the Scarborough Shoal was part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitrationruled in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of The Philippines versus The People’s Republic Of China) unanimously in favor of the Philippines concluding that there was no legal basis for China’s claim to historic rights to resources within the “nine-dash line” sea area and that China had violated the Philippines EEZ.
The CCP continues to harass the Philippines using Grey Zone methods (coercive statecraft actions short of war)such as parking between 100-200 People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia ships near Whitsun Reef (well within Philippine EEZ)in 2021 for months preventing Philippine fisherman from using their EEZ.The PRC ignored the over 100 diplomatic notes issued by the Philippine government.Many countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Australia voiced support forthe Philippines in the Whitsun incident, but none have taken concrete action.
While it is unlikely that the US will come to the aid of the Philippines in future encroachment forays by the PRC, one red line appears to be when a Philippine government vessel is attacked. Philippine military modernization efforts are focused on upgrading their ability to pushback against future CCP encroachment attempts in the West Philippine Sea while expending resources to fighting two internal ongoing insurgencies: Islamic and communist.
The remaining Asian countries—about 40 countries—do not have mutual defense treaties with the U.S. India has its own nuclear weapons and will probably increase its numbers due to the increase in the number that the CCP and Pakistan are building.
Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Mongolia have another impediment to nuclear weapons.Many of these countries have signed Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaties such as the Central Asian NWFZ Treaty (signed in 2009), Mongolia NWFZ (2000), Treaty of Bankok (1997) and Treaty of Rarotonga (1986). The Central Asian NWFZ includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and the “treaty is a legally binding commitment…not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons.”
Mongolia has similarly “prohibited on the territory of Mongolia from committing, initiating, or participating in the following acts or activities relating to nuclear weapons: 1) developing, manufacturing, or otherwise acquiring, possessing, or having control over nuclear weapons; 2) stationing or transporting nuclear weapons by any means; 3) dumping or disposing nuclear weapons-grade radioactive material or nuclear waste.”
The 1997 Treaty of Bangkok includes the following ten countries Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Similarly, they prohibit nuclear weapons in their territories but also add two additional restrictions “that go beyond other existing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) agreements: 1) the zone of application also includes the continental shelves and the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the contracting parties; and 2) the negative security assurance implies a commitment by the NWS not to use nuclear weapons against any contracting State or protocol Party within the zone of application.
All of the NWFZ countries discussed are in the PRC’s backyard.
The reaction of Ukraine’s neighboring countries in the current war demonstrates that countries sympathetic to Ukraine are unwilling tointervene militarily. Some are willing to provide token arms, but not naval ships, aircraft, and tanks. Arms suitable for guerilla and infantry actions are allowed—if the arms can be transported to a border country and then transloaded into Ukraine.
Taiwan was under the US nuclear umbrella from 1955–1974 (~19 years).Taiwan signed the NPT in 1968. When the PRC replaced Taiwan in the UN 1971, Taiwan no longer was obligated to follow the NPT.In the early 1980s, Taiwan secretly worked ona nuclear weapons program.When the Taiwanese nuclear program was revealed to the US, the USrequired its disestablishment.Unfortunately, Taiwan today has neitherthe US umbrella nor its own nuclear weapons capability.Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan could easily be blockaded during an invasion by the PLA so it would not have the benefit of being resupplied during a conflict.
EUROPE AND THE FORMER USSR REGION
Looking at Europe and applying the nuclear umbrella framework or “make your own nuclear bomb” concept, Sweden and Finland recently announced their immediate desire to join NATO, most likely due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Currently, the following nine countries have declared or believed to possess nuclear weapons: US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel.The US has 33 countries under its nuclear umbrella, 30 from NATO (including Canada and the US), Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea. The Russian equivalent of NATO is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO originally had nine members but since 1994, the CSTO has six members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.The Article 5 concept (an attack on one is an attack on the others) does apply to the nuclear umbrella concept.China agreed to a nuclear umbrella for the Ukraine in a 2013 agreement; the wording specified Chinese military action only if Ukraine were attacked by nuclear weapons.
Western European countries that are not part of NATO include Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland. The former Yugoslav republics (Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo), Moldova, Ukraine, the Caucasus region (Azerbaijan and Georgia), and the Central Asia republics (Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are at risk from Russia. Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and 2022) received a clear message from Russia that they will not be allowed to be under a NATO nuclear umbrella.In effect, these countries will live under a constant threat of a Russian invasion at the whim of the Russian leader and comprise a new security category of countries: those countries denied a nuclear umbrella by a nearby nuclear superpower. China would also try to enforce a similar nuclear weapons denial strategy for Taiwan.Other non-nuclear umbrella countries could be in the same situation as Ukraine where the West doesn’t act quickly enough to add them to a nuclear umbrella, and the delay allows China or Russia to effectively prevent them from joining.
Conclusion: “The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tidal wave on the other side of the world”—Chinese Proverb
The ramifications of the Russian-Ukraine war will be global. One dangerous result of the nuclear bomb domino effect is that Russia and China could offer countries, especially those on its periphery, a nuclear umbrella to protect them against the United States, UK, and France as well as any other nuclear power.At least this is what they will say publicly.Behind closed doors, the CCP and Russian representatives will use coercive measures to make these countries sign up or take the risk of being occupied by these superpowers, just like Ukraine.If these countries sign agreements, then they will beeffectively controlled by Russia or the CCP. The Russian or Chinese nuclear umbrella could be leveraged to ensure compliance with Russian or Chinese interests.If non-nuclear states don’t sign the agreement, they will be prevented from signing any future nuclear umbrella agreement with the West by the same threats that Ukraine experienced.Additionally, by not being a part of a nuclear umbrella, non-nuclear states also put themselves at risk of being attacked by the local superpower thug.
Some democratic countries chose to become nuclear powers despite the global nonproliferation dogma. Most countries in the world have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) with the following four countries not signing it: India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Sudan. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003. Two democracies,India and Israel are clear winners in this current situation.Countries looking to build their own capabilities will find their ability to find the people, the technology, and the resources constrained due to the United Nations Security Council’s ability to enact sanctions on “outliers.”
The future will have:(1) the number of nuclear armed countries will increase,(2) the number of countries under nuclear umbrellas will increase, and (3) the countries that are not in categories (1) and (2) will be at risk for invasion or other kinds of coercive treatment by nearby superpowers.Of the countries that are not part of nuclear umbrella, the closer that they are to China or Russia, the more fearful they will be. And the more that the US and the West decline or are reluctant to place countries under their umbrellas, the more likely the leaders of these countries will feel forced to develop their own secret nuclear weapons program.The result? A nuclear arms race that will shake the foundations of the international security environment.