Empirically, states can be convinced to forgo nuclear weapons programs
Since the advent of nuclear weapons, 29 states have pursued nuclear weapons programs but 18 have been convinced by the international community to abandon them, establishing that nuclear proliferation is not inevitable and that states can be convinced to "rollback" their programs if the incentives are right.
Arms control can advance American national interests without war. Negotiated agreements to constrain the spread and use of nuclear weapons have been an essential tool in the arsenal of American national security strategy. Such agreements are not an alternative to the use of military force, economic coercion, or covert action. Rather they are an instrument in the arsenal of American power that can be used in conjunction with other means to protect and defend our interests. Instructively, negotiated agreements contributed significantly to the fact that we survived and, indeed, won the Cold War without nuclear Armageddon.
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In the early 1990s, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan went even further, voluntarily surrendering the nuclear arsenals they had inherited from the Soviet Union. Although many Western academic strategists believed that they were insane to do so, all three recognized that the security benefits from possessing nuclear weapons were out- weighed by the diplomatic and economic benefits of giving them up. Strong economies and good relations with the rest of the world were of far greater importance to them. Finally, there is the case of Libya, long one of the Middle East's worst rogue states. In December 2003 it agreed to terminate its nuclear program after 10 years of un sanctions convinced Muammar Qadhafi that his pursuit of the bomb was not worth the devastation of Libya's economy and international relationships. These examples demonstrate that it is entirely possible for the international community to dissuade states from trying to acquire nuclear weapons and even persuade them to give them up, even when those states have compelling strategic rationales for possessing the weapons. In every case, the key has been to create a powerful set of incentives and disincentives geared to the priorities of the state in question.
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The Iranians clearly have a range of powerful motivations, strategic, ideological, and psychological, for desiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons-or at least the capability to manufacture such weapons in short order. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to confuse motivations with a universal and indomitable determination to achieve this goal. The history of the past 60 years demonstrates that other states with equal or greater strategic need, ideological justification, or psychological desire for nuclear weapons ultimately chose not to pursue them or to give up their pursuit midstream. In the 1960s it was considered a foregone conclusion that Egypt would develop a nuclear weapon. Indeed, that nation's strategic and psychological incentives were even more compelling than Iran's are today. Egypt was locked in a conflict with a nuclear-armed Israel that resulted in four mostly disastrous wars (for Egypt) in 25 years, and Cairo aspired to be the "leader of the Arab world." Yet Egypt shut down its nuclear weapons program entirely of its own volition because the leadership in Cairo concluded that it had higher priorities that the pursuit of nuclear weapons was undermining. Italy, Australia, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea considered developing nuclear weapons at various times, and the Italians and Australians actu- ally made considerable progress toward that goal. However, all of them decided that nuclear arms would be counterproductive in relation to other, higher priorities, and that they could find ways to deal with their security problems (including even South Korea) through other means.
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Although it may not be feasible now or in the near future, the U.S. should not exclude the possibility at some distant future date of nuclear roll back (i.e., the voluntary renunciation of the pursuit or ownership of nuclear weapons) in Iran – particularly in light of Libya's recent surprise decision to scrap its nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile programs. Setting the conditions for nuclear roll back in the Islamic Republic, as implausible as it may now seem, should be a long-term goal of the U.S. Since World War II, there have been nine cases of nuclear roll back: Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. (If Libya follows through on its recent commitment, there will be ten.) Argentina and Brazil abandoned their nuclear weapons programs following the transition from military to civilian rule in both states. South Africa, despite a significant investment in nuclear weapons, gave them up with the end of the Cold War and apartheid. And Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – successor states of the Soviet Union – gave up their nuclear inheritance in return for political and economic blandishments by the U.S. and others. In light of these successes of the past decade, it is worthwhile assessing the various factors that have led to roll back elsewhere and consider their relevance to Iran. Studies of roll back have identified five key factors critical to roll back decisions: political change, altered perceptions of the military utility of nuclear weapons, external pressure and inducements (such as financial blandishments, and positive or negative security assurances), economic constraints, and the lack of a public commitment to the possession of nuclear weapons
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Since the advent of nuclear weapons in the last months of World War II, 29 states have pursued nuclear weapons. However, 18 of these states willingly abandoned their programs—a decision often called nuclear 'rollback.' These 18 case studies provide ample evi- dence that states can be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons when the international community—and often the United States in particular—addresses the state's motivations behind its quest for nuclear weapons. The history of nonproliferation does not teach that states eyeing nuclear weapons inevitably get them. Rather, the history teaches that nonproliferation efforts succeed when the United States and the international community help satisfy what- ever concerns drove a state to want nuclear weapons in the first place. In other words, if the United States can accurately identify and address the motivations—or ''nuclear drivers''—that compel or encourage Middle Eastern states to pursue nuclear weapons, it may be possible in the region.
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Contrary to the impression held by some that sanctions have never diverted countries from nuclear proliferation, the cases of seven states in particular offer mixed results. In the 1970s, relatively modest unilateral U.S. sanctions on South Korea and Taiwan persuaded those countries to abandon nuclear proliferation. In the 1980s, Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa gave up their respective pursuits of nuclear weapons for reasons of their own, with sanctions having modest if any impact. Of these states, South Africa was arguably most affected by sanctions, with growing international isolation playing into the apartheid regime’s self-dissolution. In the 1990s, Iraq stopped pursuing nuclear weapons primarily because of its military defeat, although sanctions debatably had an effect unappreciated at the time. In the 2000s, the squeezing of the Libyan economy, along with Qadhafi’s conclusion that WMD would not bring Libya much advantage, ultimately led to the surrender of the nuclear program. Though each of these cases is unique, a common thread entails the need to persuade a government that the nuclear program bringsn only higher costs and less advantage. Making that case is an achievable objective with Iran.
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As argued above, analysts have often inferred the unstated case for Iran’s nuclear weapons development to be the rough regional neighborhood—the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan; Israel; Russia; and the new Middle East actor, the United States. Yet, Iran has no historic enemies; existential threats; or giant, hostile neighbors requiring it to compensate for a military imbalance with a nuclear program. A realistic assessment of Iran’s security interests does not stretch to include confronting Israel on behalf of extremist Palestinians, a minority within their own land. The implicit rationale for the nuclear weapons program lies in the worldview of the hard-liners, who see the program as the ultimate guarantor of Iran’s influence and security and, not incidentally, their own political power. Meanwhile, by arguing that all nuclear technology, peaceful and military, is necessary for Iran’s development, the hard-liners have been able (with considerable help from Washington) to confuse the issue, at least within Iran. If encouraged actually to examine the motivations for pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Iranians would likely realize that it makes little strategic sense.
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Iranians can come to the right conclusion about the country’s nuclear program for themselves if the issues are framed in terms of realistic advantages and disadvantages for their country and their individual livelihoods rather than wrapped up in the myth that a nuclearized Iran is tantamount to an independent, secure, and progressing Iran. Impartial and sustained encouragement from nations that assert themselves as friends of Iran rather than define it as their foe can help bring this needed debate to the surface as there exists no necessary or inevitable contradiction between Iran’s security needs and nuclear nonproliferation. Ultimately, the best nonproliferation decision is one that is made indigenously; based on Iranians’ own assessment of their country’s national interests, such a decision would prove durable and legitimate. Such a decision can be encouraged by the international community, and perhaps especially the EU, which is less shy about offering inducements for good behavior. Iran should be able to see the benefits and rights accorded to states that act responsibly as international good citizens. The United States and its allies should thus encourage this wide-ranging internal debate in tandem with external efforts to induce or compel Iran to comply with nonproliferation norms.
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Ultimately, the only long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis will be to reintegrate Iran into the international community, requiring a lessening of tensions and greater cooperation and transparency on the nuclear issue. Both sides must commit to this process of reintegration, which is sure to be as difficult a sell in Iran as it is in Washington. In order to make such an outcome possible, however, Iran and the inter- national community must commit to a process of engagement on all levels in pursuit of issues of mutual concern. Through a process of sustained engagement, both sides will be able to identify areas of potential cooperation and in time should come to identify an end-state that will satisfy most of each other’s demands. Iran must eventually be al- lowed to continue its nuclear development, including enrichment, while the West must insist on imposing sufficiently comprehensive safeguards to ensure the absence of weaponization work.
The experiences of past nuclear ambivalent states like Japan, Argentina, and Brazil have shown that positive foreign relations and strong international partnerships are the key to forestalling proliferation. For the moment, there is no reason to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon is inevitable. Should the West and Iran escape the cycle of self- perpetuating hostility that has come to define their relationship over the past three decades, then the world community can rightfully expect Iran’s leaders to follow the path of peaceful nuclear technology. The current dynamic, however, is pushing the situation between Iran and the West in the wrong direction, with little hope that a catastrophe may be avoided.
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Ambivalence, here, means simply that the end result of Iran’s nuclear development has not been predetermined. The nuclear program begun under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ostensibly created for peaceful purposes, but the shah is believed by some to have desired eventually to acquire weapons.6 Under the shah, then, Iran employed a policy of nuclear ambiguity. This ambiguity demonstrates*but is markedly different from*Iran’s nuclear ambivalence. Whereas ambiguity implies that the shah desired nuclear weapons but chose to conceal that truth from the world, ambivalence suggests that individual actors*even those intimately involved in the formulation of nuclear policy*may not know the precise trajectory of their country’s nuclear development. According to Abraham, the strategy of ambivalence ‘‘is not an instrument of policy under the control of the proliferating state, to be used to deceive or confuse, but rather an effect of the inability of discourse to fix itself unambiguously on one or another nuclear meaning.’’7
The author argues that Iran accepted the nuclear deal because it concluded that "the real cost of visibly maintaining the nuclear weapon option exceeded whatever potential advantages the program could bring."
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