U.S. policymakers should not let last week’s IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions distract them from the world’s greatest danger: the many nuclear weapons scattered throughout unstable Pakistan.
This week, the IAEA released damning evidence that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon, causing great controversy if little surprise. The week before, The Atlantic published a much more frightening document: An exhaustively researched article on the weakness of the Pakistani state and the insecurity of its nuclear arsenal.
There is no doubt in my mind: Iranian nukes, although potentially disastrous, would pose far less of a danger than the weapons Pakistan already has. This is because Pakistan is a weak state, whereas Iran is a strong one.
The Pakistani government struggles to project its authority throughout the country and cannot keep the peace even where it is strongest. In The Atlantic, for example, journalists Jeffery Goldberg and Marc Ambinder describe Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, like an armed camp under siege and relate how the army’s headquarters came under sustained attack by Taliban fighters in 2009.
Several times since 2007, insurgents have attacked Pakistani military facilities that experts believe contain nuclear weapons or their components. In the most recent case, militants breached the perimeter of a naval base near Karachi and then held off security forces for 15 hours before they were overwhelmed.
According to Goldberg and Ambinder, the U.S. has prepared extensively to recover or disable Pakistan’s weapons in the event that they are compromised. Depending on the scale of the crisis, U.S. forces would intervene to secure a single facility or mount a small, targeted invasion to try and secure Pakistan’s whole arsenal. (The emphasis here is on the word “try,” as no one even knows for sure how many weapons are in the country). American security planners accord only two other scenarios the same importance as the collapse of nuclear-armed Pakistan: A war with China and an invasion of Iran.
Were Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, they would be securely controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG). Certainly, the IRCG are an unusually well-organized gang of thieves and despots, friends and taskmasters of the abominable Hezbollah. But the IRCG is also “the spine of [Iran’s] current political structure and a major player in the Iranian economy.” Although the IRCG is despicable, the organization has a great and growing stake in the survival of the Iranian regime.
Leaders with power do not risk the destruction of that power heedlessly, and no state has ever ignored the terrible danger of a nuclear exchange. Even North Korean leader Kim Jong Il knows the limits of his nuclear options. The U.S. could trace a nuclear attack against itself or Israel, and an overwhelming response would not be slowed by Khamenei’s protests that a warhead had been "misplaced" and stolen by Hezbollah.
I am not arguing, as another PolicyMic pundit did recently, that Iran is a “rational actor.” No state, properly speaking, really is. Both Iran and Pakistan use terrorism to advance what they perceive to be their interests, but in Pakistan the tail wags the dog. Iran’s strong state would be in control of its arsenal, but Pakistan’s weak state already struggles to protect its own.
Although the U.S. is obligated both to keep Iran nuclear-free and to stand sentinel over Pakistan’s weapons, it should spend greater resources and effort on Pakistan, which is too weak a state to be entrusted with so great a power.
Photo Credit: tacklepakistan