The political scientist John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Ohio State University, has written "Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda," and his thesis is that the world's magical thinking and alarmism about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons has significantly distorted policy making and threatens to leave the United States more vulnerable to more pressing threats. Mueller's opinions are not shared by most of his colleagues, but they are taken seriously -- he's not a provocateur. I asked Mueller this morning to put the news about Iran in the context of his theories. How much of a threat is Iran's proliferation? How much of a threat is the West's obsession with Iran's proliferation?
"No one has been killed by nuclear weapons in recent memory and lots of people have been killed by our obsession with proliferation, especially in Iraq," he says.
Ok. Lets assume that Iran gets the bomb. What happens?
A bunch of other countries will run around in hysterics for a while, but in the end, probably nothing. What China has done with the bomb has been nothing. It's just been a huge waste of money. Basically, if Iran gets the bomb, they may find that it's completely useless, except to stoke their egos for a while.
You concede that nuclear weapons are extremely destructive, but you say that our obsession with them has led to a fear that is way out of proportion to the actual threat. One thing you write in your book is that the notion that the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over is just false.
It's false. It would take...something like 90,000 huge thermonuclear bombs, and we don't have near that many. That doesn't mean that nuclear weapons can't kill large numbers of people. But if the weapon that North Korea has were dropped in Central Park, it wouldn't bring down any buildings. If it were placed in Times Square, it would be pretty bad, but there is a lot of exaggeration about the difference [between that bomb and a large conventional explosive]. Look, the bomb is a horrible thing. I don't want to sound like I'm trivializing the bomb. But it makes sense to at least abandon some of our conceptions that are [just as] dangerous.
You want to focus proliferation activities more on terrorists and technology and less on nation-states?
Sort of. In the case of terrorism, I'm not too alarmed about it. Some things make sense, like securing fissile materials. But I do have a problem with carrying out policies that could kill tens of thousands of people.
Graham Allison, the Obama administration official and former Harvard prof, has estimated that there's a 50% chance that a nuclear weapon will explode in a major city over the next ten years. I take it you disagree with his prediction.
Well, he also said that in 2005. He's a smart guy, and he's been thinking about this for a while. My disagreement is that he massively undersestimates the difficulty of a terrorist getting a bomb. There aren't loose nukes out there, even though he's been talking about it for years. There aren't fissile materials. What tends to happen on analyses like this, including his, is that it looks at the individual steps to build a bomb and concludes that, it would be difficult but not impossible fo each step. But overcoming [all] twenty difficult if not impossible [steps] to build a bomb -- there is a vanishingly small likelihood of success. There's been a considerable exaggeratoin by him and others that Al Qaeda is even interested in obtaining the bomb.
Back to the current situation. Isn't the non-proliferation regime you criticize preventing Israel from bombing Iran -- and therefore preventing the escalation of the scenario?
Well, it's quite possible than Iran will never try to get a bomb. But if they are bombed by Israel, it will increase the likelihood of them getting the bomb. It will escalate. I think a nuclear Iran could be well contained and deterred.