Nuclear Iran would undermine nonproliferation regime
The nonproliferation regime is under a lot of stress after 40+ years of attempting to prevent a wave of nuclear proliferation. With the international community unable to prevent North Korea from successfully obtaining a nuclear weapon, some experts are concerned that if Iran goes nuclear, it would push the regime over the tipping point.
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Achieving nuclear capability would make the Islamic Republic not only a regional threat, but also an international one. A nuclear Islamic Republic would, in effect, end the Non-Proliferation Treaty security regime. Many, if not most, regional states might feel compelled to develop their own indigenous nuclear capability or accept coverage from another state’s nuclear umbrella. Given historical instability in the region, the prospects of a nuclear Middle East—possibly including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—are worrying enough, even before the proliferation cascade continues across North Africa and into Southern Europe. Iran’s continued nuclear development also endangers global non-proliferation by exposing weaknesses in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the inability or unwillingness of the international community to enforce the Non-Proliferation Treaty or United Nations resolutions on non-proliferation.
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There are three ways in which the United States’ Iran policy could negatively affect the international nonproliferation regime. First, U.S. policies could fail, and Iran could develop nuclear weapons. Such an outcome could undermine international respect and support for the NPT, and—more importantly—weaken U.S. credibility and the credibility of its counter-proliferation efforts. The United States has already strongly committed itself to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has made a point not to take any options off the table in order to do so.61 If Iran crosses that red line and the United States fails to act, other states could well conclude that the U.S. commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a paper tiger, and that the United States is not willing to risk expending blood and treasure to prevent an adversary from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Indeed, the United States has already found itself in this position with North Korea, which has twice tested nuclear weapons despite similar opposition from the United States.
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Iranian weaponization could undermine U.S. credibility and the legitimacy of the international nonproliferation regime.6 Iran’s development of nuclear weapons could undermine the reputation of the United States, and lead allies to question its commitment to their defense. This is particularly the case given the United States’ repeated statements that it will not accept an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Because Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), its development of weapons could undermine the legitimacy of the treaty and compli- cate multilateral nonproliferation efforts.
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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.
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If Iran ultimately does get nuclear weapons, this will surely further damage the NPT. Insofar as Iran will have launched and developed its program under the cover of the NPT, member states will lose confidence that the system actually protects them in any way. Many member states with the capacity to build their own nuclear weapons will want to move themselves closer to an ability to do so in the event that any of their neighbors defect from the treaty. They will want to be months rather than years away from their own nuclear weapons. If some do this, then all may wish to do so. Thus the warning time that the treaty mechanisms provide to other members that regions are turning dangerous -- warning that could be used for preventive diplomacy -- will be shortened. If actual widespread and rapid proliferation then occurs in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, then the treaty obviously will have suffered a major failure.