Nuclear weapons and motivations for Libya and Iran
Sep 21, 2011

Nuclear weapons and motivations for Libya and Iran

Perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of the non-proliferation movement was the 2003 decision by Colonel Qaddafi of Libya to entirely abandon his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program, throwing open the doors to inspectors and allowing the program to be dismantled and removed. It is a success story which flies in the face of the defiance by Iran or North Korea to do just that. I take up first the question of incentives for nuclear weapons for Iran - and how the Libyan outcome must look to it - and then look back to 2003 at the motivations for Libya itself.

Centrifuges given up by Libya
The principle message that Iran has undoubtably taken away from the saga of Libya giving up their nuclear weapons program and then getting taken out by the internationals eight years later is that giving up their weapons program did not buy them security. Libya experienced a moderate increase in its foreign oil infrastructure investment post 2003, but remained a pariah until the day of the hopelessly euphemistic "no fly zone". If you were an Iranian leader, would you not do everything in your power to ensure there was not a repetition of Libya in Iran?

The tools of geopolitical statecraft - getting other countries to do what we want without using military force - involves a balance of carrots and sticks. Sticks include sanctions, exclusion from international bodies and the threat of war. Carrots include direct military and economic aid, opening of economic relations and inclusion into international bodies.

What the Libyan intervention proved is that the mere act of getting rid of its nuclear weapons would hardly make a difference in the balance of carrots and sticks being offered. Ultimately, the biggest carrot of sovereignty was not granted and the ultimate stick, removing said sovereignty with overwhelming military force, was enacted. Before this, some sanctions were lifted, but the kind of economic aid and political integration that might be offered as carrots never materialized. Today Iran experiences the same kind of economic sanctions, limited influence in the major non-Islamic political bodies, and constant threats from the US that Libya did in 2003, but it is far from clear that giving up their nuclear program is going to significantly alleviate this.

We should recall that nuclear weapons, perhaps counterintutively, are very much a defensive weapon. They create a strategic deterrent that prevents other countries form attacking or invading for threat that this nuclear weapon may be launched. Not even Iran could be so foolish to ever think of a nuclear weapon as a preemptive offensive attack for this would ensure the imminent and complete destruction of that state from a unanimuous consortium of far more powerful international countries.

It is hard to say whether Libya could, if they had pushed hard, gotten a nuclear weapon by Febuary 2011. When it was dismantled in 2003, it was significantly further advanced than the US had previously thought, thanks to the ability to essentially shop for parts in the A.Q. Khan network. If they had, however, it is quite likely that the 2011 intervention could never have happened provided there was any remote chance at all that a nuclear bomb could hit Marseilles.

Iran must surely also be looking at Pakistan (and to a lesser degree India and Israel, together making the three nuclear armed non-NPT members) as potential models for its nuclear weapon program. Despite Pakistan getting closer to nuclear war than any other place on earth outside of the Cuban missile crisis, despite being an openly belligerent state towards Kashmir, Afghanistan, and its domestic Baluchistan province, despite its NWFT being strategically identical in terms of the problems and people in the war on Afghanistan, and finally despite its culture and Islamist tendencies being superficially deserving of the same pariah status as Iran, Pakistan enjoys instead a very close and intimate relationship with the US. The US provides enormous amounts of military aid (some of which is directly to secure the nuclear weapons), shares strategic multilateral ties with Pakistan, overlooks so many of their faults and has been responsible for the entrenching of the on-again-off-again military dictatorship. If you are Iran, would you prefer to go in the direction of Pakistan which has nuclear weapons and enjoys this close relationship, or Libya, which gave them up and now has had its state crushed by western military force?

I certainly don't love the idea of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But I cannot be surprised that they want exactly this. That weapon, unique among all weapons, has always retained a level of prestige and geopolitical influence that makes it desirable for any to obtain it. It will always be desirable for pariah states looking to assert themselves as powerful to their people, to the region, and to the world. Western policy that focused on non-proliferation must do what we can to counteract those incentives. The Libya model, however, has only served to underline for Iran exactly why they should desire a nuclear weapon.

I now return to the 2003 decision in Libya and the motivations for Libya giving up their nuclear weapon program. I was reminded of this in a 2010 debate between Robert Wright and Christopher Hitchens that I recently watched. Starting about 40 seconds into part 6, Hitchens attributes one of the causes of Qaddafi abandoning the nuclear weapons program was that he was very afraid of the equivalent of Iraq happening to him and, in the context of the discussion, this is to be seen as a positive externality for the war in Iraq. I think it might be the case that the war on Iraq solidified the impression for Qaddafi that WMD's were to be considered the paramount litmus test for inclusion in the western oriented world, but the evidence that he legitimately feared an Iraq-esque mass invasion is limited (nor was the chance that this would actually happen substantiated).

With the benefit of knowledge about what has transpired in Libya since the time of that debate, I think it is reasonable to say that this narrative is, in large part, false. Namely, that Qaddafi - in the face of international condemnation and open threats - felt confident continuing on with his hopelessly belligerent threats and assaults on his own people. He brought an international attack upon himself. Given that, how much stock can we give to the idea that his previous action was out of an abject fear of international interventionism? Of course, it is clear that Qaddafi was wrong because the internationals did invade - whether he simply didn't think they would invade (a not entirely unreasonable proposition) or whether he was the kind of raving lunatic he sometimes appears is up for the reader to decide. Regardless, either of those explanations presumably held true in 2003.

An entirely more reasonable explanation for the 2003 nuclear weapon pull out is espoused by Shahram Chubin, director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy:
"I think that Libya -- and in particular its leadership -- are getting ready for succession. They must have recognized that it makes sense to bring Libya back into the fold of the international community, and to do that they'd have to dispense with these [weapons] programs that they've been having for many, many years, which clearly serve no rational purpose. And I think it's a recognition by Gadhafi that he wants to let his son succeed him and to leave Libya in a slightly better position if he gets rid of these useless weapons, which have created unnecessary distrust and suspicion on the part of its neighbors and, of course, the international community as a whole, including Britain and the United States."
That narrative likely held until he was faced with a domestic existential threat which was perceived to be greater than the need for international acceptance. If he had realized the resolve of the international community, presumably he would have acted differently, but it is hard to maintain he had it entirely backwards by wrongly guessing it didn't have resolve in 2011 and wrongly guessing that it did have resolve in 2003. Note further that the general impression on the arab street is that international resolve is far higher today than at the turn of the millennium, so it goes in the wrong direction. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden frequently referenced the perceived weakness of American withdraws from Lebanon and Somalia at the first sign of weakness as evidence thereof.

In the study of geopolitics, one is forced to wrestle with questions as I did above along the lines of "if X occurs in one country, what will the effect be on some other country?" It is worth considering these types of questions because we would be naive not to acknowledge externalities of our actions (or inactions) where they occur. However, it is easy to get led down a road of over attributing causality. In particular, apologists of international involvement often widely ascribe positive events as ultimately caused by the involvement while detractors will say the same of negative events. It is worth acknowledging how difficult this approach actually is and how strong statements of causality are often largely specious. The above arguments discussing relationships between events in Libya, Iraq, and Iran have some truth, I think, but can never be more than simply partial influencing factors. Note that one can repeat the same consideration for North Korea as for Iran and there is probably some truth there as well but I refrain from making it too explicit just because of the considerable other diffence in the geopolitical and cultural situations between the two countries.


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