What If Iran Got the Bomb?

It would be time to calm down.

The political survival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved the question of Iran's nuclear program back to the center of U.S. diplomacy. Iran, it is argued, cannot be allowed to build nuclear weapons because its leaders say crazy things, wear funny hats without ties, and believe that God will reward them with virgins and whatnot for consuming friendly countries in a nuclear firestorm. Iranians, in short, are so different, weird, and threatening that they cannot be trusted with the bomb. Fortunately, no such state has ever successfully developed nuclear weapons...except for the People's Republic of China (PRC). And this historical analogy holds a highly relevant lesson for today.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PRC embarked on a crash program to develop nuclear weapons, ultimately testing a device successfully in October 1964. Even its own allies believed China's communist leaders to be reckless and dangerously casual about the threat of nuclear war. The regime's ideology precluded the notion of an afterlife (and thus of eternal damnation), and its leaders had demonstrated a willingness to kill millions upon millions of their fellow citizens in the service of utopian goals. (Also, Mao conspicuously refused to wear a tie.) There was every reason to believe that the Chinese leader could push the button without remorse.

But pursuing nuclear weapons was altogether rational for the Chinese, especially given the unreliability of their Soviet ally. The Chinese communist regime found itself on the receiving end of nuclear diplomacy three times in the first 10 years of its existence. Although U.S. President Harry Truman rejected proposals for the use of atomic weapons against China during the Korean War, his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, had no apparent qualms about threatening their use to bring the war to a close and later to defend Quemoy in 1954 and 1958. With its own nuclear deterrent, it was thought at the time, the PRC might be emboldened to engage in all manner of aggression, conventional and otherwise.

The Chinese nuclear threat seemed particularly dire to a tiny U.S. ally in East Asia. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was unnerved by Beijing's nuclear test, and he agreed with his American boosters who urged Washington to "unleash Chiang." The idea was that Taiwan could carry out preventive strikes to destroy Chinese nuclear facilities, perhaps seizing a few provinces in the process. The generalissimo believed that world opinion would not constrain China from using nuclear weapons on its own territory, as Beijing regards Taiwan. In spite of the strong advocacy of the China lobby, Washington politely demurred.

Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a "paper tiger," and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: "We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?"

In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union came to a boil over a border dispute near the Ussuri River. Heavy firefights broke out along the border in March and August. In the background of these skirmishes lay the specter of a Soviet nuclear attack on China. Chinese nuclear forces at the time did not have secure second-strike capability, and a preemptive Soviet attack could have eliminated China's ability to respond. In spite of the strong incentive for both sides to launch a first strike, calmer heads prevailed.

There are profound differences between the Islamic Republic and the People's Republic, and 2009 is not 1969. Simply because the PRC survived a superpower confrontation, several chaotic leadership changes, and a Cultural Revolution without ever using its nukes doesn't mean that Iran poses no threat. However, it does suggest that nuclear deterrence may be as robust as advertised and that deterrence applies even to states led by people who say and do crazy things (like refraining from Western neckwear).

Given Mao's penchant for bizarre behavior, earlier concerns that China might recklessly employ the nuclear weapons it was seeking in the late 1950s were probably even more legitimate than such concerns over Iran now. Nevertheless, China has acted as a responsible steward of nuclear weapons, even in situations of existential danger. So, rather than preparing for war against Iran, or believing that unconditional talks will eventually succeed (a nice hope, but unlikely), or offering a green light to a nervous regional ally convinced that nukes in crazy hands will inevitably lead to their use, perhaps American policymakers should take some comfort from history. Why not let Iran cross the nuclear threshold and spend time and energy focusing on how to make the deterrence of a nuclear Iran effective? After all, that now seems to look like the only realistic option.

In short, the best lesson for the West may be this: Calm down.

Flickr user Pierre J.


China's Latest Tibet

Why Beijing won't compromise in Xinjiang.

After scolding the West for interfering in the internal affairs of Iran, Beijing's public relations department will now be on the defensive following riots in Urumqi, the capital of the westernmost region of Xinjiang. Chinese state media has admitted that 140 people have been killed and almost 1,000 arrested. Hundreds had taken to the streets to protest the local government's handling of a clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in far southern China in late June, in which two Uighurs died. The police responded to the rallies with force, claiming that the unrest was the work of extremist forces abroad and that a heavy reaction was necessary to bring the situation under control.

Given the region's population of 20 million -- barely 1.5 percent of the country's people -- many are wondering: Why has Beijing taken such a hard line in Xinjiang? The reason is summed up in one of the ruling party's favorite mantras: "stability of state." Unrest of even a small magnitude, the Chinese authorities believe, can spell big consequences if it spirals out of control.

Instability of the sort in Xinjiang today is hardly new for China. Behind Shanghai's glamour and the magnificence of Beijing, there are large swaths of disunity and disorder. Taiwan, which mainland China still claims as its own, remains recalcitrant and effectively autonomous. Residents of Hong Kong want guarantees that Beijing will not dismantle the rights they enjoyed under British colonial rule. And traditional Tibetans, who fear a complete political and religious takeover by the ethnically Han majority, want cultural and administrative autonomy -- even if most have abandoned hopes of achieving outright secession. Many of the 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang want the same. The current violence is just the latest manifestation of their simmering anger.

There is widespread disorder even in provinces that pose no challenge to Beijing's right to rule. In 2005, for example, there were 87,000 officially recorded instances of unrest (defined as those involving 15 or more people) -- up from just a few thousand incidents a decade ago. Most protests are overwhelmingly spontaneous rather than political; they arise out of frustration among the 1 billion or so "have-nots" who deal with illegal taxes, land grabs, corrupt officials, and so on. To deal with the strife, Beijing has built up a People's Armed Police of some 800,000 and written several Ph.D.-length manuals to counsel officials on how to manage protests. Those documents detail options to deal with protest leaders: namely the tactical use of permissiveness and repression, and compromise and coercion, on a case-by-case basis. The tactics are designed to take the fuel out of the fire. Sometimes leaders of protests are taken away; other times they are paid off; still other times they are given what they want.

Much of this is done quietly, which is perhaps why the current riots stand out. When it comes to what Beijing sees as separatist behavior, subtlety is no longer an option. Although their populations are relatively small, Xinjiang and Tibet together constitute one third of the Chinese land mass, and Beijing will not tolerate losing control over these territories. To be sure, the protesters in Urumqi and their supporters cannot spark an uprising throughout China. The protests will eventually be quelled, and their leaders will no doubt be dealt with brutally. But as the history of the Chinese Communist Party tells us, when the regime's moral and political legitimacy is threatened, the leadership almost always chooses to take a hard, uncompromising line.

President Hu Jintao, who incidentally earned early brownie points within the party by leading a crackdown of political dissidents in Tibet in 1989, understands better than anyone that authoritarian regimes appear weak at their own peril. Losing face, he believes, will only embolden the "enemies of the state." The Communist Party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which is chaired by Hu, has often spoken warily about the democratic "viruses" behind the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, and perhaps eventually Iran -- the same kind that could conceivably take root in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet. This is why Chinese authorities are deeply suspicious of any group with loyalties that might transcend the state and regime or at least cannot be easily controlled by the state, such as the Falun Gong, Catholics, or independent trade unions.

It's important to remember that, at home, the government's hard line is not wholly unpopular. Most Chinese do not support the separatist agendas of Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. They would rather see a strong and unified China restored to historic glory. No wonder then that the Chinese state media has been quite upfront about reporting on the current unrest in Urumqi.

Chinese leaders learned much about control in their extensive studies of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their conclusion is clear: It was Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-fated attempts to be reasonable that brought down that empire. The current generation of Chinese leaders is determined not to make the same mistake. And that means no compromise in Xianjiang.