Albert Einstein once said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." It has long been thought that nuclear weapons are the most powerful in the world and pose the greatest threat to the stability and security of the world. However, since WWII, this thought has been empirically denied. The Cold War was a time when the proliferation of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union had a stabilizing effect, and the concept of mutually-assured destruction--the fact that both countries would suffer harms greater than the benefits gained if they used nuclear weapons--prevented countries from ever using them. Since the Cold War, proliferation has continued, and mutually assured destruction's stabilizing effect has as well. This may all change, however, when terrorists acquire nuclear weapons.
Mutually assured destruction does not apply to terrorists and their willingness to use nuclear weapons. First, terrorists are not bound by a need for survival. Many terrorists believe that sacrificing themselves in the killing of infidels will bring them to heaven. Therefore, their survival and the survival of their nation-state are irrelevant. Second, terrorists are not heads of state like the usual controllers of nuclear weapons. Therefore, they are not concerned with the survival of their nation-state. This means two things: First, because they are not heads of state and they just represent themselves politically, countries will not retaliate with nuclear attacks; Second, even if countries choose to retaliate with a nuclear attack on the country in which the terrorist fired the nuclear weapon from, the terrorist can move out of the country to be unaffected by the retaliatory nuclear attack. Therefore, mutually assured destruction does not apply to terrorists and their willingness to use nuclear weapons. Mutually assured destruction no longer has a stabilizing effect like in the Cold War era.
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Now that it has been shown that terrorists have no reason not to use nuclear weapons, let's examine why terrorists would use nuclear weapons, specifically on the United States.
Terrorists dislike America and will attack it with nuclear weapons if they acquire them.
Michael A. Levi from the Council on Foreign Relations states:
What about the motivation of terrorists that have attacked the American homeland? Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith has stated al-Qaeda’s objective: “to kill 4 million Americans...ask yourself how many 9/11s it would take to reach that goal. Answer: 1,334, or one nuclear weapon.
As shown, terrorist groups including Al-Qaida have the goal of killing millions of Americans. They can most easily do this by using nuclear weapons—not by conventional terrorist attacks. If terrorists got a hold of nuclear weapons, they would most likely use them against the United States or one of its allies.
Now, one question that hasn't been answered is how terrorists could ever acquire nuclear weapons when the only known possessors are states.
Here is the answer.
Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will cause proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East.
According to a London Telegraph article in February of 2011:
"A report from The International Institute of Strategic Studies said Iran had two routes to making a nuclear weapon from its existing nuclear plants. Iran's nuclear facilities have produced enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to be used to make nuclear weapons. The report echoed Liam Fox, the Defense Secretary of the UK, who told the Commons on Monday that it was "entirely possible" the Islamic Republic might have developed a nuclear weapon by next year. Mark Fitzpatrick, the report author, said he believed beyond reasonable doubt that Iran was pursuing a nuclear bomb. 'Iran has already produced a sizeable amount of low enriched uranium which could be enough if further enriched for one or two nuclear weapons,' Mr. Fitzpatrick said."
As we can see, Iran is in the process of creating a nuclear weapon. It has the ability to do so. Many, including Iran, claim that Iran is using its nuclear facilities for an energy program. However, this is unlikely given Iran's behavioral record in the past. It has provided weapons, training, funding and other support to terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, whose main goal is to kill US troops. Its actions have historically shown hostility toward the United States and irresponsibility. Furthermore, it has shown continual hostility toward Israel and has threatened to destroy Israel entirely. One can only imagine the pleasure Iran would receive from Israel being nuked.
Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will have disastrous impacts to United States national security. Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will cause nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East.
According to Noah Feldman from the Council on Foreign Relations:
"A nuclear Iran means, at the very least, a realignment of power dynamics in the Persian Gulf. Adding the nuclear ingredient to this volatile mix will certainly produce an arms race. If Iran is going to get the bomb, its neighbors will have no choice but to keep up. Given the increasing instability of the Middle East, nuclear proliferation there is more worrisome than almost anywhere else on earth. As nuclear technology spreads, terrorists will enjoy increasing odds of getting their hands on nuclear weapons...Proliferation could also happen in other ways. Imagine a succession crisis in which the Saudi government fragments and control over nuclear weapons, should the Saudis have acquired them, falls into the hands of Saudi elites who are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, or at least to his ideas. Or Al Qaeda itself could purchase ready-made bombs, a feat technically much less difficult than designing nuclear weapons from scratch. So far, there are few nuclear powers from whom such bombs can be directly bought: as of today, only nine nations in the world belong to the nuclear club. But as more countries get the bomb, tracing the seller will become harder and harder, and the incentive to make a sale will increase."
As we can see, Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Middle Eastern countries see a nuclear Iran as one of the greatest threats. Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will create an arms race in the Middle East, causing many countries in the region to develop nuclear weapons to keep up with Iran. With more countries possessing nuclear weapons in such an unstable region, the chance of terrorists getting a hold of nuclear weapons increases significantly.
Many claim that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would deny this arms race. This is untrue, as Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would lead to the demise of NPT.
Dennis Ross from the Washington Institute for Near East Research states:
"...We frequently talk about the destabilizing consequence of Iran going nuclear. That understates it. Let's be very clear what it means for Iran to go nuclear. When Iran goes nuclear, we're going to have a nuclear Middle East. Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon capability that is not matched by their own. They will not trust an American guarantee. They see Iran with nuclear weapons as having a nuclear shield behind which they can engage in coercion and subversion. They will create their own counter. My bet is they probably already have a deal with Pakistan, even today. Now, if Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, do you believe that Egypt will say it's okay, Saudi Arabia will be the only Arab state with a nuclear capability? I don't. I had a conversation a few months ago with a leading Egyptian official who said, "When Iran goes nuclear, or if Iran goes nuclear, it is the end of the nuclear nonproliferation regime."
Other experts agree.
According to the East West Institute in May of 2009:
There has been a consensus in the international community...that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. It would be a serious blow to the NPT if Iran were to do so. It might provoke other states in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, for example) to pursue nuclear weapons, thereby further destabilizing an already volatile region..."
As shown, if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Middle East proliferation of nuclear weapons will be inevitable, and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and regime as a whole will disintegrate. This is because Iran as a nuclear possessor is so threatening that countries will be forced to violate the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to keep up with Iran and protect their countries.
With terrorists having nuclear weapons, they do not pose an imminent threat to the United States, however. They would still need to acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, something that no hostile country has yet done. However, countries such as Russia and China have recently provided nuclear technology to Iran. This makes the likelihood that these countries would provide ICBM technology to Iran very high. Iran could then transfer this ICBM technology to terrorists.
Another source of ICBM's for terrorists could be North Korea. North Korea is close to developing an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. Not only has Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that North Korea could have ICBM's capable of reaching the continental United States by 2015, many experts agree.
According to the United States National Intelligence Community, a federation of 17 US Government Intelligence Agencies in 2011:
"By 2015, the United States will most likely face Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Threats from North Korea. North Korea could strike Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the continental United States."
This technological development, occurring at the same time as the nuclear arms race is starting and terrorists are getting closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, could be very threatening.
North Korea could supply this ICBM technology to terrorists, especially because it has historically been thought to have supported terrorists, providing nuclear technology.
According to a Reuters News Article in January of 2010:
"Apart from the direct threat of a nuclear weapon, the next biggest concern is the proliferation risk Pyongyang poses. Much of the North's income in the past has been generated through arms sales. Last year, a U.N. report suggested the North may have supplied Syria, Iran and Myanmar with banned nuclear technology. Equally, experts worry about the potential for subsequent proliferation to terrorists."
As shown, North Korea may be a historical supplier of nuclear technology to terrorists. If it develops ICBM technology capable of sending a nuclear weapon to the United States and transfers this technology to terrorists, the terrorists will have all of the resources necessary to use a nuclear weapon against the United States.
In summary, in the past, nuclear weapons have posed a trivial threat comparatively. However, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists would be disastrous, as mutually-assured destruction, the stabilizing force of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, does not apply to terrorists. Iran has developed a nuclear program and is currently making nuclear weapons. By next year, it may possess one functioning nuclear weapon. Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon will cause the disintegration of NPT and an enormous wave of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, making it easier for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons. With the support of Russia, China, or North Korea, terrorists could strike the United States with nuclear weapons using advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles.
One must wonder why, given a threat this serious, the response to Iran's nuclear program from the United States and the international community has been a set of weak sanctions and no military intervention.