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Iran Deal Or Not, World Nuclear Threat Is Worse Than Ever

The treaty signed with Iran won't eliminate the risk of global proliferation. Russia, China and North Korea in particular are building arsenals and see destabilization as strategy.

Screenshot of the War Room in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
Screenshot of the War Room in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
Columbia Pictures
Nathalie Guibert


PARIS — Despite the historic agreement reached with Iran July 14, the idea of a world with no atomic weapon remains a dream, even 25 years after the end of the Cold War. There are 4,100 nuclear warheads on the planet, and 1,800 of them are American or Russian ones in a state of alert, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) experts.

No indeed, the Iranian deal hasn't come close to eliminating the risks of proliferation. In fact, North Korea announced in the wake of the deal that, for its part, it was "not interested at all by a unilateral freeze or the abandonment of its nuclear program."

The use of the bomb became irrelevant in the past decade as new threats emerged (terrorism and cyber-terrorism, in particular) and as existential border risks to Europe disappeared. During the 1990s, the United States, Russia, France and United Kingdom decided to cut their nuclear arsenals. China was the only country with nuclear weapons that did not follow suit. Asia, in fact, has become a nuclear continent. Those who believed that the Iran nuclear deal would stop proliferation were wrong.

Asia relies a lot on nuclear weapons despite not having any treaty, or confidence measures, or regional military cooperation organization. According to a French expert, François Mitterrand"s belief that "the pacifists are in the West and the missiles are in the East" is more accurate than ever."

Nuclear weapons have become a way to contest the established order. "The perception that the United States is less willing to interfere in world affairs and the huge advantage that they have in terms of classic capacities combine to encourage nuclear destabilization strategies," says Corentin Brustlein of the French Institute of International Relations.

The 1994 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons signed with North Korea only lasted nine years, after which the regime relaunched its nuclear program. Pyongyang is now starting to learn how to use a new arsenal, which experts have concluded is operational. During the same period, two countries developed new ways to use atomic weapons: Pakistan, by developing short-range nuclear missiles to stop any potential Indian offensive; and China, which has placed nuclear power at the heart of its army modernization despite the country's defensive doctrine.

None of the 250 Chinese nuclear warheads is totally deployed, according to the FAS. But they will be soon, though Beijing enjoys being ambiguous about it. Japan and South Korea feel threatened. The United States began strategic talks with these two allies in 2010.

Russia hasn't changed its doctrine since implementing nuclear weapons usage restrictions in 2010. But the affirmation of Russian power in the West (in Ukraine), in the North (in Arctic) and in the East (China) shakes up the status quo. "A war is still possible in Europe," French President François Hollande said during a speech earlier this year.

Next-generation arsenals

Russian President Vladimir Putin has developed an intimidating rhetoric concerning these issues. While the U.S. has conserved power with its technological supremacy in conventional weapons, Putin has broadened the use of his tactical weapons. At the beginning of 2015, NATO had to consider a potential decrease in the field of use of the bomb after Russia fired an intermediate-range missile (500 to 5,500 miles), which the U.S. considered to be a treaty violation.

"The reduction of the strategic Russian arsenal which took place in the two last decades comes to an end, as there are now 500 launchers and 2,400 warheads in the world," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsreports. "In order to remain below the limits of 1,550 deployed warheads after 2018 fixed by the New Start committee, Russia will have to reduce its number of charged warheads in some of its missiles."

But the time of disarmament hasn't come. The Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) are preparing the next generation of their nuclear arsenals. They're trying to improve the range of their weapons, as well as their precision, and the penetration capabilities of ballistic systems. In 2012, Putin announced that the army would acquire 400 new intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2020. The United States has launched a 320 billion plan through 2025. For France, modernization could cost twice what the country currently spends for its arsenal.

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