The Nuclear Domino Myth: Dismantling Worst-Case Proliferation Scenarios
These are major accomplishments in preventing proliferation in the Middle East, and they contradict the worst-case scenarios about a nuclear Iran. Yet they have done little to reassure those who expect a chain reaction of proliferating states.
Such mistaken beliefs are due in part to the West's poor understanding of Iran. After more than 30 years of severed diplomatic, cultural, and educational relations with the country, the West knows little about Iran's leadership, national aspirations, and culture. Because of this, policymakers have a difficult time thinking about the implications of a nuclear Iran and resort to simplistic grandstanding, reprising outdated political fears that lack historical nuance or modern perspective. The exaggerated fears have been useful, too: had the United States not presented Iran's nuclear aspirations in the darkest of lights, it may not have been able to gain support for four rounds of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic in the last few years.
Another reason for the persistence of worst-case thinking is that the domino analogy is often discussed interchangeably with bilateral arms races, such as those between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and between India and Pakistan. These are two distinct concepts, however. The Cold War and South Asian cases represent dyadic arms buildups -- a scenario that cannot be ruled out in the Middle East. Even though this hypothetical should be of great concern, it is far from the nightmare nuclear domino effect, which by definition requires many more countries to speedily develop nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, this type of rapid development is just not technologically feasible.
Other fears about a nuclear Iran are less convincing. It is often said, for example, that Iran's neighbors will be held hostage to Tehran's atomic tyranny. Undoubtedly, a nuclear Iran will gain regional prestige and power, and the country would be able to exert increased pressure on other nations. But the offensive utility of nuclear weapons is questionable; they have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All other nuclear powers have relied on their nuclear capabilities for deterrence, and there is no reason to believe that Iran would act differently. Any Iranian threats to use nuclear weapons would simply not be credible. And without credibility, Iran -- like any country -- would not be able to hold another country hostage.
But there's one problem with this "nuclear domino" scenario: the historical record does not support it. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, many have feared rapid and widespread nuclear proliferation; 65 years later, only nine countries have developed nuclear weapons. Nearly 20 years elapsed between the emergence of the first nuclear state, the United States, in 1945, and the fifth, China, in 1964.
The next 40 years gave birth to only five additional nuclear countries: India, Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and North Korea. South Africa voluntarily disarmed in the 1990s, as did Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After Israel developed a nuclear weapons capability in the late 1960s, no regional nuclear chain reaction followed, even though the country is surrounded by rivals. Nor was there even a two-country nuclear arms race in the region.
Similarly, it has now been four years since North Korea became a nuclear weapons state, yet South Korea and Japan have not followed suit, despite the fact that they have a latent nuclear weapons capability -- access to the fissile material necessary for nuclear weapons. These countries' decisions to not go nuclear are largely thanks to extensive U.S. efforts to dissuade them. Both South Korea and Japan enjoy firm and long-standing security assurances from Washington, including protection under the U.S. strategic nuclear umbrella, obviating the need for their own deterrents. Following North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, U.S. President George W. Bush immediately assured South Korea and Japan that the United States was unequivocally committed to protecting them.
Others claim that the global nonproliferation regime would quickly crumble if Iran went nuclear. According to them, a nuclear Iran may damage the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the agreement under which states endorse nuclear disarmament and pledge not to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran were to emerge as a nuclear weapons state after cheating on its treaty obligations, the NPT's legitimacy would certainly suffer a blow. It would take more than Iran cheating on the treaty, however, to nudge the NPT into the abyss of irrelevance. The NPT is one of the most successful international accords in history, currently enjoying almost universal membership. Its more than 180 committed parties are unlikely to allow Iran's nuclear program to demolish an institution that is -- and has been for four decades -- the foundation of nonproliferation efforts. And if Iran has the power to make the NPT collapse, it is questionable whether the treaty is worth preserving in the first place.
Predictions of catastrophic consequences resulting from a nuclear Iran are not only wrong but counterproductive. The assertion that the widespread proliferation is unavoidable could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The myth of a nuclear domino effect creates an excuse for other Middle Eastern countries -- expecting that their neighbors will be nuclear powers -- to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. Nightmare scenarios are dangerous for yet another reason: the expected consequences of a nuclear Iran, real or imagined, will determine the policies pursued to prevent Tehran from developing the bomb. If the consequences are out of sync with reality, the methods applied will be disproportional to the threat. Seven years ago, the United States walked into Iraq based on worst-case-scenario predictions about its nuclear program that were far from beyond a reasonable doubt. Washington cannot afford to wage another war on false pretenses.