Deterring Regime Change

Nuclear weapons programs come with costs: financial, reputational, and the potential for being made a target by other nuclear powers. There is also an opportunity cost in diverting smart scientists, engineers, and managers from work that might produce improvement to people’s daily lives and the economy.

Leaders understand that there are costs. In starting his nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan declared “’We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get [a nuclear weapon] of our own.”

The Iranian documents presented by Benjamin Netanyahu yielded one new piece of information: That Iran planned an arsenal of only five rather small (10 kiloton yield) warheads. Likewise, Kim Jong Un has declared his arsenal complete after what seems a rather sketchy set of tests.

Those in favor of war against both countries or trying to strangle their economies with sanctions claim that those countries are acting out of aggression, that if they are successful in their quest for nuclear weapons, they will immediately use them. But the actions of Iran and North Korea indicate otherwise.

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, George W. Bush listed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the Axis of Evil. The next year, the United States invaded Iraq, whose nuclear weapons program had been removed after the 1991 war. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Libya gave up its nascent nuclear program.  In 2011, Muhammar Ghaddafi was deposed and killed. The lesson for Iran and North Korea was obvious: Only nuclear weapons would deter the United States from attempting regime change.

Both Iran and North Korea, like many other nations, most of which never went nuclear, probably investigated the possibility of nuclear weapons from their first acquisition of nuclear technology. In 1957, the United States provided a research reactor to Iran. In 1963, the Soviet Union provided a research reactor to North Korea. Additionally, some of the capabilities developed in peaceful applications of nuclear energy can be transferred to nuclear weapons design and production.

In response to their designation a “Axis of Evil” and actions that followed against Iraq and Libya, it would be reasonable for Iran and North Korea to design deterrence strategies against forcible regime change by the United States. Nuclear weapons seem like a good bet, but how many and what kind?

That need must be balanced against national resources. Bluffing worked in the past, notably by the United States after it had expended its only two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. President Harry Truman’s statements indicated that the United States had many more atomic bombs in reserve, when in fact it had one more plutonium pit but was building more. A few demonstrations plus a good bluff can equal deterrence.

North Korea has demonstrated a very powerful nuclear device that likely has some thermonuclear features. It has also demonstrated missiles that could reach the United States. It has supplemented these demonstrations with photos of what it claims are its nuclear devices and diagrams of how they might fit onto those missiles. We do not know that those photos represent what was tested, nor do we know how much fissile material they have, how much is needed for each device, or how many missiles they have. We do not know how quickly they can manufacture nuclear weapons or missiles.

But given the demonstrations, and given what we know about their plutonium-producing reactor and the centrifuge facility shown to Siegfried Hecker, we in the United States cannot assume that there are no weapons aimed at the United States or our allies, South Korea and Japan. North Korea already had a strong deterrent in its ability to destroy Seoul with conventional artillery. Now a capability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons must be assumed.

Iran had the same objective but decided on a different path. They developed a simple weapons design along with a variety of missiles and planned to build five nuclear weapons that they would keep secret until needed. Again, bluffing was part of the strategy. Detonating a nuclear weapon or two, whether as a demonstration test or against Israel would change the expectations of an aggressor. When the opportunity came to trade the program for improved economic conditions, they agreed to restrictions beyond what was expected by Western experts.

The nuclear strategies of North Korea and Iran, up to now, are not the strategies of aggressors. They have left their options open to grow the programs in the future, but that is only prudent. The programs might be called “minimum deterrence.”

Threats of nuclear destruction, as Trump has issued, fit with both countries’ worst-case fears of regime change by the United States. John Bolton, now the President’s National Security Advisor, has explicitly advocated regime change in both countries. North Korean and Iranian government officials should be thinking hard about their deterrents.

A more effective strategy would be to show how the threats can be removed via negotiations.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is Iran’s test of whether it can back off from its nuclear weapons program. If Trump violates the plan, Iran will reconsider its deterrent.

North Korea now seems to be in a position where it is willing to negotiate with its nuclear program. If they can feel safe from regime change and have ways to grow their economy, the weapons program will become less important to them.

The Trump administration seems to believe that these two countries can be threatened into compliance with its desires. That is a naïve and dangerous view. States act in what they perceive to be their own interests. Bowing to threats is likely to incur further intimidation or worse. Their response to a threat-only posture is likely to be to ramp up their deterrent. And the end of threats would be wars that the United States can ill afford.