Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 October 2013

Book recommendations are usually unsolicited and almost always unheeded. And when a thick tome arrives as a gift, it more often than not sits sad under a coffee table or collects dust on a shelf.

But here’s one for Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his boss president Hassan Rouhani – and his boss, supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Consider this an open letter, an equally uninvited subspecies of literary intrusion. I assume you gentlemen are Monocle fans so please, hear me out.

Penguin has just published a new book by the journalist Eric Schlosser: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety. It plots the risks, mishaps, follies and near-fiasco of over half a century of America’s nuclear-weapons programme. And it’s a doozy.

Javad, my friend, please read this book. I'll even smuggle a copy to Tehran, free of charge.

I say this during an interesting moment in your country’s history. The recent news from Geneva of "substantive" talks with the West is encouraging – and your president has expressed a willingness to tackle negotiation head on. Let’s hope all goes well. Because as I’m sure you’re well aware, the US, with all of its military prowess and technical know-how, barely – just barely – managed to avoid nuclear catastrophe during the tense mid-century decades. Schlosser documents not one, not two but 1,200 separate occasions of comically close disaster. And not due to war.

A nuclear bomb 260 times more powerful than the one that flattened Hiroshima tumbled thousands of feet to suburban North Carolina in 1961, after the B-52 carrying it got into a spot of trouble while refuelling. A notoriously unreliable safety switch prevented a very bad day for the US east coast. And a dropped socket wrench almost destroyed the state of Arkansas in 1980 when a Titan II missile with a thermonuclear warhead was pierced.

The history of the US's nuclear-weapons programme is chock full of accidents, fires, uh-ohs, oh-nos and computer miscalculations. You get the idea. So Javad, while all should applaud the possibilities and potential of diplomacy, remember this: if negotiations fail and your country continues down a clandestine path, history provides an overwhelming lesson. The biggest danger lies not in the cyber wrath of the US or the airforce of Israel but Iranian hubris and human error.

And that’s the scariest bit of all.

Daniel Giacopelli is a Monocle 24 producer.

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