Friend of NoH Johan Bergenas hit the online pages of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday to make that case that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, while something we should seek to prevent, would not cause a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East. He makes a persuasive case, because, well…Johan is a persuasive guy. And did I mention that the piece has a great title: “The Nuclear Domino Myth”? Nice.
Come get some:
But there’s one problem with this “nuclear domino” scenario: the historical record 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.
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.
There is no question that the world would be better off if Iran did not obtain nuclear weapons, and the international community must use all appropriate measures to prevent Iran — or any other country — from doing so. But the case against a nuclear Iran is strong enough without a nuclear domino myth. By invoking worst-case scenarios, policymakers are only clouding nuanced thinking.