Although it is true that proliferation has been slower than some initially predicted, those who draw on this fact to claim that we have nothing to worry about disregard the fact that we are at a tip- ping point at which the old restraining regime may give way to a nuclear free-for-all. For decades, we were able to promote a taboo on nuclear weapons, well depicted in The Nuclear Taboo by Brown University professor Nina Tannenwald. Major segments of the population of the world and their leaders embraced the precept that nations should refrain from acquiring nukes, and that giving them up was the desired policy. When President Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons and promised that the U.S., working with Russia, would move toward zero nukes, he was widely cheered. The taboo is at the foundation of a treaty signed by 189 nations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Both the taboo and the treaty were undergirded by various diplomatic and economic measures, as well as some arm-twisting.
In recent years, though, as North Korea thumbed its nose at the NPT and Iran seemed increasingly to move toward developing nuclear weapons, the taboo has weakened and respect for the NPT has waned. Moreover, the champions of deterrence in effect argue that the taboo and treaty are so yes- terday, that more and more countries will obtain nukes, and that we ought to get over it, adjust to the world as it is now, and move on. Thus, Texas A&M University professor Michael Desch writes, “If [during the Cold War] we could live with those rogue nuclear states [the Soviet Union and China], which were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people to advance an eschatological ideology, there is scant reason to think Iran poses a more serious threat . . . To paraphrase the subtitle of Stanley Kubrick’s great nuclear satire Dr. Strangelove, it might just be time to stop worrying and learn, if not to love, at least to tolerate the Iranian bomb.”
As I see it, the taboo and treaty are indeed being tested, but it is too early to write them off. If Iran can be stopped, which in turn would increase the chances that we could pressure North Korea to reconsider its course, we may be able to save the nuclear abstinence regime. In contrast, there is little doubt that if we allow Iran to develop nukes, other nations will seek them, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, some believe, even Jordan. Also, as a countermeasure against North Korea, Japan and South Korea would not be far behind if the taboo is broken so flagrantly in the Middle East. Brazil and Argentina may well also follow suit as more and more “important”’ nations acquire nukes. In short, applying deterrence to Iran rather than trying to dissuade it from developing nukes in effect entails opening the world to truly large-scale proliferation that would significantly increase the probability of nations coming to nuclear blows and terrorists finding places to get their hands on nukes.