Columns » Ernest Dumas

Bomb deals

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If what you knew about the Iran nuclear agreement were the apocalyptic warnings of Iranian terrorism and another Jewish holocaust — Mike Huckabee's contribution to the narrative — you would never suspect that we have had five decades of entirely futile efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons by what we thought were either rogue nations or the good guys.

That includes the secret and despairing efforts of four presidents — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon — to stop Israel itself from making the bombs and setting off a nuclear competition with Muslim countries.

You would never know that the agreement between Iran and the six global powers, led by the United States, promises to be the first successful effort to stop or seriously restrain a nation's nuclear-weapons development. The deal curbs Iran's suspected weapons program and allows inspections in return for an end to global oil and financial sanctions. The letter to the president last week from 29 of the nation's leading physicists and nuclear authorities endorsing the agreement described it as having "more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation agreement."

That is small praise if you follow nonproliferation's sad history and our feckless part in it, but it should give you far more comfort than the blind claims by such as Huckabee and Arkansas's Sen. Tom Cotton that the deal is a green light for Iran to build bombs, attack its neighbors and endanger us right here in Arkansas.

Here is an illustrative point. Huckabee, trying to leap ahead of other Republican presidential candidates in characterizing Barack Obama's latest crime against humanity, said the agreement leads Israelis "to the door of the ovens." How exactly are you leading them to the door of the ovens if the Israelis have the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems of any nation outside the great powers?

Even if the deal with Iran were no stronger than its Republican critics say, it would be by far the best we have ever done to curb nuclear ambitions. Lacking diplomatic leverage, we could only despair as the Soviet Union and China stole our secrets and made the bomb and sigh as allies France and Britain did the same. But we tried, feverishly at times, timidly more often, to use diplomacy and sanctions or the threat of them to stop Israel, India, South Africa (it subsequently gave the bomb up), Pakistan and North Korea from joining the nuclear club. You know how they all turned out.

Let's revisit them anyway. They offer a clearer perspective on the Iran deal than the Huckabees and Cottons can provide. Israel is a good place to start. Since it was virtually a client state of the three Western nuclear powers, its atomic efforts were a ticklish problem, particularly for the United States. France, with an assist from the British, actually furnished Israel technology and materials.

When President Eisenhower, months before leaving office, expressed concern about what appeared to be a nuclear reactor spotted by his U-2 spy planes, Israel explained that it was a textile factory but put it off limits to inspectors. Ike's successor, John Kennedy, demanded inspections (privately, of course), refused a White House meeting with the Israeli prime minister and twice in 1963 wrote letters to the prime minister and his successor threatening total isolation of Israel unless inspectors were allowed. Israel gave in, ,but it proved useless because inspectors were denied access to key parts of the facility. The next year President Johnson tried vainly to stop Argentina from selling yellowcake to Israel. Israel conducted its first nuclear test in 1966 and the CIA informed Johnson that Israel was building bombs. The CIA maintained in a secret report to President Carter later that 206 pounds of highly enriched uranium that went missing in 1965 from a nuclear company in a Pittsburgh suburb went to Israel. An FBI investigation of the missing uranium hit a dead end.

President Nixon continued the pressure but, according to documents declassified eight years ago, he then reached a permanent solution with Prime Minister Golda Meir at the White House. Both nations would adopt a policy of "nuclear ambiguity." The U.S. would pretend not to know about Israel's nuclear program and Israel itself would be vague about it. The policy prevails today, though the Defense Department slipped up last winter and acknowledged that Israel had an arsenal of 80 to 400 weapons.

Spurred by territorial disputes with Pakistan, India developed the bomb in 1974, over quiet diplomatic protests from the United States. On the eve of the Indo-Pakistani war, Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's future prime minister, famously announced: "If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. The Christians have the bomb, the Jews have the bomb and now the Hindus have the bomb. Why not the Muslims, too, have the bomb?"

So, while Ronald Reagan explored the idea of ridding the planet of nuclear weapons with the Russians, the Muslims of Pakistan, with British help, built the bomb. Pakistan, which harbored al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Sunni terrorist groups, then sold its nuclear formulas to North Korea and Libya. Pakistan was sort of an American ally courted by Reagan and subsequent administrations, but unfriendly megalomaniacs ruled North Korea and Libya.

Bill Clinton and the Russians worked out a deal with North Korea to stop its weapons development and sign the nonproliferation treaty, but when George W. Bush denounced North Korea, Iran and Iraq as "the axis of evil" and prepared to invade Iraq, the Koreans and Iranians got busy with their nuclear programs again. North Korea withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty and built its first bomb. Despite a succession of multipower agreements negotiated by Clinton, Bush and Obama, North Korea continued off and on to build bombs and threaten its neighbors and the United States with annihilation.

But those Iranians, see, are bad dudes and only Barack Obama would trust them.

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