Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears
By Taylor Marvin
Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.
Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:
Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.
Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.
All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.
But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.
It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?
So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.
*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.