With the recent collapse of the Moscow talks and the imposition of a new round
of crippling sanctions, there is a palpable sense that the time to strike a
war-avoiding bargain with Iran over its nuclear program is running out. But why
should anyone fear the prospect of a nuclear Iran in the first place?
politicians and commentators inside of the US, EU, and Israel disagree over the
best way to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb (e.g., additional sanctions,
air strikes, or continued talks), but agree that a nuclear Iran represents an
unacceptable – even existential – threat for three unfounded
First, it will have an easier time coercing its neighbors.
Second, once Iran goes nuclear, its neighbors will have no choice but to acquire
nuclear weapons of their own. Third, a nuclear Iran may pass nuclear
weapons to one of the terrorist organizations it is allied with, such as
Hezbollah.Myth #1: A Nuclear Iran will have an easier time bullying its
The conventional wisdom suggests that once Iran acquires
the bomb it will be in a superior position to get its neighbors to do things
they would not ordinarily do. The logic is simple: nuclear weapons’ destructive
capacities are so great that when a non-nuclear power is threatened it has no
choice but to capitulate.
This line of reasoning was established during
the early Cold War.
American policymakers came to believe that the US’
nuclear dominance played a key role in convincing the Soviets to back down
during the crisis over Azerbaijan and in getting China to sign the armistice
that brought the Korean War to an end.
Although it has been well
established that nuclear weapons can deter attacks, there is little evidence
that nuclear weapons are useful for coercing weaker, non-nuclear
This is for two reasons. Weak states have strong incentives to
uphold their reputations for standing up to aggressors. Backing down today opens
up a state to aggression tomorrow. Second, leaders’ domestic constituents often
see backing down in an international confrontation as weakness or incompetence
in the management of the nation’s foreign policy, which could result in a
challenge to a leader’s tenure. This fear is particularly great for autocratic
leaders, who are often exiled, imprisoned, or executed upon leaving
To avoid these outcomes, leaders of non-nuclear states are likely
to resist demands from nuclear powers. There are several examples of this. After
Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in 1956, both Britain and France
demanded he reverse his actions and open the Canal to international shipping.
However, despite Britain’s possession of the bomb and Egypt’s status as a
non-nuclear power, Nasser successfully resisted the Eden government’s
In 1978, Israel was unable to translate its nuclear superiority
into influence when it unsuccessfully demanded that Syria leave
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration
called upon the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. However, the Taliban
refused despite America’s clear nuclear superiority, resulting in the US
invasion of Afghanistan.Myth #2: Proliferation begets proliferation
fear that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will set off a nuclear arms race
in the Middle East.
It has been predicted that in order to counterbalance
Iran’s newfound influence, states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and
Turkey will have little choice but to acquire nuclear weapons of their
However, past experience suggests that such fears are exaggerated.
For years, its neighbors viewed China as their biggest threat. Mao frequently
used bombastic rhetoric about there not being a need to fear nuclear
Despite this, China’s acquisition of the bomb did not lead to a
nuclear arms race in East Asia. American security guarantees to South Korea and
Japan reduced their individual needs for nuclear deterrents of their
Despite predictions to the contrary, a nuclear arms race failed to
break out in the Middle East after Israel acquired the bomb. Sadat, for example,
found that his domestic political survival was tied to making peace with Israel
and the dismantlement of Egypt’s nuclear program.
Other states, such as
Saudi Arabia and Jordan, decided to never pursue nuclear weapons in the first
America’s nuclear umbrella may play the same role in the Middle
East today as it did in East Asia after China developed the bomb. Turkey’s
membership of NATO removes its need for a nuclear arsenal of its
Other states have either explicit or implicit guarantees of support
from the US. Although the domestic political scene in Egypt remains unsettled,
the Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it is interested in maintaining
Egypt’s ties with the West, which would be endangered should a Morsi government
decide to restart its country’s nuclear weapons program.Myth #3: Iran
will hand nuclear weapons to a terrorist organization
Bismarck once said that
waging a preventive war was akin to committing suicide for fear of death. The
same would be true of Iran’s handing a nuclear weapon to one of its terrorist
proxies, such as Hezbollah.
Some hawks have been quick to point out that
Iran has provided terrorist organizations with weapons in the past.
group like Hezbollah was to use a nuclear weapon against Israel, and it was
traced back to Iran through the use of nuclear forensics, the Islamic Republic
would be risking its own existence. Israel – or any target – would see this as a
first strike and would retaliate against Iran accordingly.
virtually no one welcomes the emergence of another nuclear power, western
policymakers have exaggerated the threat posed by the development of an Iranian
nuclear weapon. The possession of nuclear weapons is unlikely to make Iran a
more successful aggressor, bring about a cascade of reactive proliferation in
the Middle East, or lead Tehran to hand one of its bombs to a group like
Hezbollah.The writer is a researcher in the Department of Political
Science at the University of California, Irvine.