Could the Castle Bravo Bring a Tiny Ally Into Israel's Cause Against Iran?

The Marshall Islands bears unique witness to the destructive power of atomic weapons. With a phone call, Netanyahu might be able to capitalize on Iran's seizure of the Maersk Tigris.

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Nuclear weapon test Castle Bravo on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in March 1954. The explosion was the first U.S. test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb.
Nuclear weapon test Castle Bravo on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in March 1954. The explosion was the first U.S. test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb. Credit: United States Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

If I were the prime minister of Israel (a stretch, to be sure), one of the people I’d reach out to right now is Tony de Brum. He is the foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose flag the Maersk Tigris was flying when it was seized by Iran. I don’t know de Brum, but I’m told he is racing to New York this week to deal with this question.

It happens that the Marshalls is one of the three sovereign states that America is obligated to defend under an instrument known as a Compact of Free Association. This has put the Obama administration in a ticklish position as it tries to convince the Congress and the rest of the world of the merits of a deal with Iran.

If America gets tough with Iran on behalf of the Marshalls, after all, it risks riling the mullahs just as America is seeking to get them to sign the nuclear accord. If America flinches — and fails to retrieve the Marshalls-flagged Maersk Tigris — that would be a default on a commitment. How could anyone then expect it to handle Iranian violations of a nuclear deal?

All that would be cause enough to get in touch with de Brum. But it strikes me that there’s a more strategic reason. The Marshall Islands minister is one of the leading tribunes against nuclear weapons. He has devoted his whole life to the question, and as recently as last week he was at the United Nations speaking on this head.

There he recalled how, at the age of nine, he was a witness to Castle Bravo. That explosion, which took place in March 1954, was the first U.S. test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb. De Brum called it the “largest detonation the world had ever seen, 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima blast.”

“It was the morning,” de Brum recalled, “and I was fishing with my grandfather. He was throwing the net and suddenly the silent bright flash — and then a force, the shock wave. Everything turned red — the ocean, the fish, the sky, and my grandfather’s net.”

The thing of it was, too, they were 200 miles away from the explosion.

Castle Bravo and the other nuclear tests in the Marshalls precipitated de Brum into a life-long campaign against atomic weapons. Ideologically, he has found more friends on the left than the right. At The Hague, he is currently suing all nine of the nuclear nations.

These include France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, in addition to America. The United States is special in this struggle because at the time it was conducting nuclear tests in the Marshalls, it was holding the islands in a formal trust.

In any event, war, on the brink of which the world is now trembling, makes strange bedfellows. Is there a possibility of bringing a new ideological tribune into the debate over an Iranian A-bomb? Heretofore it has been viewed through the prism of the Middle East.

But where are the most passionate opponents of the spread of nuclear weapons? And why is de Brum supporting U.S. President Barack Obama’s prospective deal with the Iranian regime? If that proposed agreement would, as Israel alleges, pave the way to an Iranian bomb, de Brum ought to be leading the charge against it.

America, after all, had good reason to be scrambling in the 1950s to perfect its nuclear arsenal. The race was on for a deterrent against a Soviet Union that was determined to conquer the free world. With what excuse other than an attack on Israel can Iran be credited for its atomic program?

The Marshall Islands republic, incidentally, is widely cited, along with Palau (which also has a Compact of Free Association with America) of being among the most reliably pro-Israel votes in the General Assembly. So in seeking a shidukh with the Marshalls in the current confrontation, Israel would be reaching out to an old friend.

What an irony it would be if, by seizing the Maersk Tigris, Iran brought into the lists against its nuclear ambitions the nation that bears unique witness to the destructive power of the kinds of weapons Iran covets.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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