Will Heaven: In defence of the nuclear option

Jeremy Corbyn addresses a Stop Trident rally in Trafalgar Square on Saturday.

Although the press’s attention was elsewhere – on the increasingly vicious infighting among top Tories – Jeremy Corbyn managed to pack Trafalgar Square last weekend with thousands of his cheering admirers. They were there for a retro, 1980s-style rally against nuclear weapons. “We live in a world where so many things are possible,” said Corbyn, in a dreary speech. But is he right to think that one of those possible things is the eradication of nuclear warheads?

Let’s imagine for a minute that all the countries in the world with such weapons – the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – chose to do as he says, and dismantle them. Corbyn’s admirable dream would become a reality: no longer would we have to fear the annihilation of the planet. Oppenheimer’s infamous quotation on witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb – “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – would lose its sting. The trouble is, how on earth is it possible to unlearn a scientific discovery?

For a nuclear-free world to work, not only would every nuclear weapon have to be made safe, all nuclear countries would also have to destroy the scientific record that might allow them to relearn the deadly technology. Nuclear scientists would have to forget all they knew. Otherwise, those countries would be free from the weapons themselves, but would remain capable of rearming. They’d have the apparatus and the expertise to make new bombs. In confrontations or wars, they would also have the incentive to do this first.

In this dangerous scenario, the risk of reacquiring nuclear weapons slower than your enemy would be enormous, so each country would have drills to prepare for it. They would get very good at rearming at speed, just as in the build-up to World War I, as the historian AJP Taylor argued, the great powers developed elaborate timetables to mobilise their armies quicker than anyone else. But would it end there? In this high-stakes race between enemies, the safest option for the winner might be to press the red button first. As with Taylor’s theory about the Great War, the momentum of the process, once in train, could make a disastrous outcome unstoppable. The Cuban Missile Crisis would look like a minor squabble by comparison.

Perhaps Corbyn would say this is too pessimistic. It is indeed terrifying to think that bombs exist now which could flatten London in a matter of minutes. The desire to eradicate that threat is worthy of applause. Perhaps countries really could disarm and unlearn the ability to unleash nuclear war. But it may just be that the state we have lived in for more than half a century – with Britain being nuclear armed, and relying on the stable doctrine of mutually assured destruction – is the safest we are ever going to get.

An extraordinary BBC documentary last month revealed just how detached the Shah of Iran became from his people before he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Its subject was a 1971 party thrown by the Shah to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent erecting a tent city in the desert, where 60 dignitaries – including the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne – were hosted for five days of lavish entertainment. Food and wine were flown in from Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, 29 miles of silk were used, and the tables were decorated with stuffed peacocks. Guests witnessed a military pageant that was designed to show the world three things: that the Shah was the “king of kings” (hence our Queen politely declining her invitation), that Iran was a proud and ancient civilisation, and that it was resurgent under his rule.

Appearances were deceptive. The Shah was not the king of kings so much as the arrogant son of an army officer who had won power after a coup. And the event so angered his people that he was exiled within the decade. Modern Iran, however, can also be deceptive. A colleague of mine recently attended a “Death to England” rally in Tehran. The ritualistic chants against “Inglistan” would have unnerved me, but I’m told the protesters, when they realised a real-life Englishman was among them, could not have been more welcoming.

Will Heaven is comment editor of The Sunday Telegraph