Clem Sunter

Boom! The threat of a nuclear conflict

2013-03-22 10:33

Clem Sunter

In our 2005 book Games Foxes Play, Chantell Ilbury and I provided "The Ultimate Gameboard" because “it is well known that the current nuclear weapons stockpiles of the few nations who have them are enough to destroy all life on this planet many times over. The future of our existence hangs in the balance, because access to these weapons could dramatically increase over the next fifty years."  Moreover, “given the tempestuous nature of man, and his propensity for fighting, our world has been, and always will be, pockmarked with skirmishes, battles and wars that dictate the course of history”.

The four corners of the ultimate gameboard

We had four quadrants on our ultimate gameboard depending on whether peace (unlikely) or war would reign for the time being and whether or not nukes would be used in the next major conflict if and when it happened.  One of the two peaceful quadrants we named “The Madhouse” where “the logic is that mutually assured destruction (MAD) will deter any nation from a first strike. Obviously, the advent of stateless terrorism has knocked this principle on the head since terrorists who plant nukes need have no fear of reprisals in a specific spot”. The other quadrant we called “All Together Now” where a new non-proliferation agreement is signed which lowers nuclear stockpiles worldwide and this reduces the threat of a nuclear exchange.

“Conventional Carnage” was our first scenario on the war side of the gameboard.  For example the conflict in Syria would be included in this quadrant. The second we named “Boom!” and included potential nuclear flashpoints in Israel, Iran, North and South Korea and Kashmir.  As we said, “The Boom! zone has only been entered twice – on both occasions by America in Japan”. We also entertained the situation “where some shady member of the arms trade passes on a nuke for $25 million to a terrorist outfit. It could have been manufactured in a private laboratory in a secret location. And James Bond does not come to the rescue”.

Two nuclear flags

The red flags on Boom! are rising.  In a press briefing in Israel on Wednesday both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed that Iran is now within twelve months of developing sufficient enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb as well as the delivery system (i.e. a missile) to go with it. The clock is ticking and the two leaders were at pains to say that no option, including the military option, could be ruled out. My gut feel is that Iran is not going to be deflected in any way from its nuclear programme particularly as Israel already possesses nukes. So a military showdown is more or less inevitable but whether that will involve nukes or conventional weapons is debatable. It could well be a pre-emptive strike by Israel using conventional weapons to knock out Iran’s enrichment facilities. However, that may not succeed because the equipment used to manufacture enriched uranium may well be located deep underground in a highly fortified site.

The other red flag is North Korea which already has nuclear weapons and has recently tested them. They have just torn up all agreements with South Korea and are threatening American bases in and around Japan. The young leader, Kim Jong-un, is proving to be even more belligerent than his father and it must be borne in mind that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is close to the North Korean border and is a highly vulnerable target with about 26 million people inhabiting the metropolitan area. It is the second largest megacity on Earth behind Tokyo. Despite overtures from China designed to defuse the situation, again a showdown may not be avoided.


A nuclear exchange need not lead to the all-out nuclear war which has long been punted as the worst-case scenario. Nevertheless very foxy thinking will be required among the principal players to lower the risks of the nuclear game. We are indeed in extraordinary times. The stakes could not be higher.


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