LONDON – British lawmakers Wednesday authorized construction of the next generation of nuclear submarines, despite warnings that it sends a green flag to nations such as Iran to develop their own nuclear weapons.
In a divided vote that fractured Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party and led to warnings of a new nuclear arms race, the House of Commons voted 409 to 161 to approve the $39 billion overhaul of the nation’s Trident missile “nuclear deterrent,” the network of submarine-launched ballistic missiles the government said must remain a backbone of the nation’s security over the next 50 years.
With his own party in open rebellion – the biggest show of Labor defiance since the 2003 vote on the Iraq war – Blair won the vote only with the help of the opposition Conservatives, who agreed that Britain cannot afford to give up its nuclear arsenal at a time of unknown future threats.
“With the end of the Cold War, it was understandably hoped that the role of nuclear weapons in shaping the international system might become less relevant . … But unfortunately, they still have a major relevance,” William Hague, the Tories’ point person on foreign policy, said during the six-hour debate.
“The abandonment of our nuclear deterrent would be extraordinarily ill-advised, and indeed a national act of folly,” he said.
But critics said Britain’s continued commitment to nuclear defense is useless against the threat of terrorism and could diminish its ability to act as a moral force for nonproliferation.
“If the argument is made that the future is uncertain, what right does anyone have to say that Iran should not get a nuclear weapon? If Iran gets a weapon, Saudi Arabia will want one, as will Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and perhaps even the Gulf States,” said Clare Short, a former member of Blair’s government who resigned over the Iraq war.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, warned last month that the West risks losing its moral authority in seeking to prevent nations such as Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“They are told nuclear weapons are counterproductive because they do not protect your security,” he said during a lecture at the London School of Economics.
“But when they look to the big boys, what do they see? They see increasing reliance on nuclear weapons for security, they see nuclear weapons being continually modernized,” he said.