John Culleton: Bigger worries than Iran on nuclear front

In recent decades we have faced two kinds of enemies, nation states (Iraq) and terrorist groups (al-Qaida).

On 9/11 we were attacked by a terrorist group. We went after that group in Afghanistan, but our major effort was against Iraq, a Middle East nation state that pretended to have atomic weapons.

Iraq tried to play a double game, pretending to have the weapons while allowing inspectors to come and seek them. The double game failed. We fell for the pretense, attacked Iraq, defeated its armed forces and deposed its dictator. We then discovered that our earlier attack via "Operation Desert Fox" had destroyed Iraq's nuclear program and it had not been resumed.

Now we face a nation state whose attempt to obtain nuclear weapons is more credible, Iran. But the obvious question is never asked: After they gain such a weapon, what will they do with it? The conventional wisdom is that they will attack Israel. But Israel already has a sizeable nuclear arsenal, by some estimates up to 200 warheads. And we have thousands. A conventional nuclear attack by Iran or any similarly disposed state would elicit an immediate and devastating response.

We know that Iran's leadership is irrational, but are they suicidal? Do they want to see Tehran and the holy city of Qom reduced to atomic wastelands?

Belgium, China, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States are known to have atomic weapons, either produced at home or loaned by the U.S.

Of these nations the most disturbing arsenals are those held by North Korea and Pakistan. North Korea may have the will to risk national suicide, but lacks the means of delivery. Their recent failure while testing an old Soviet model rocket shows that they are not ready to even threaten a nuclear attack. But they could sell a bomb to terrorists.

Pakistan is perhaps the most worrisome state. Their unstable government, plus the presence and influence of al-Qaida, create the threat of a suitcase bomb or its equivalent falling into suicidal and unfriendly hands. Worse, this could happen without any notice or may have happened already.

At this point Iran is a distraction rather than a threat. Israel, under the hawkish prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, might launch a preemptive strike, but only if they could be assured of American backing. We would do well to keep that particular attack dog on a very short leash.

The war hawks in both Israel and Iran feed off of each other, exchanging threats to bolster their domestic political fortunes. It is the cold war stage play repeated, but with smaller actors.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and Mitt Romney are old buddies, which is another reason we should re-elect Barack Obama.

It is puzzling that all American politicians repeat the same mantra that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. There are more serious threats that are being ignored. It appears that Iran wants to join the atomic club more for leverage reasons and national pride than for any offensive intent.

The American panic over Iranian nukes reminds me of the reaction of our brave leaders after we declared war on Spain, a fifth rate naval power at best. Immediately the mayors of our port cities wanted battleships stationed in their harbors to protect against the Spanish fleet. That threat was nonexistent. Spain wasn't threatening us. We were bullying them.

International terrorism led by al-Qaida is still our most serious threat. A nuclear weapon, even a crude one, in their hands could lead to a disaster much worse than 9/11. Iran is a ways off from creating such a weapon, and it is not likely to turn such a weapon over to unpredictable terrorists. Pakistan and North Korea already have nuclear weapons and they could fall into al-Qaida's hands. Those are our immediate worry points.

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