Iran and the bomb: Nothing to fear but fear itself

Mao frequently used bombastic rhetoric about there not being a need to fear nuclear warfare. Despite this, China’s acquisition of the bomb did not lead to a nuclear arms race in East Asia.

Ahmadinejad nuclear unveiling 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad nuclear unveiling 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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?
Several 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 reasons.
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 non-nuclear neighbors
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 states.
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 office.
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 demands.
In 1978, Israel was unable to translate its nuclear superiority into influence when it unsuccessfully demanded that Syria leave Beirut.
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
Many 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 own.
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 warfare.
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 own.
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 place.
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 own.
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.
If a 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.
While 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.