Observation Deck

Is a Nuclear Iran a Threat or a Distraction?

Why the Obama administration’s focus on negotiations to stop Tehran’s nuke program overlooks the real problems in the Middle East.

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Once upon a time, no term evoked modernity like “the Atomic Age.” It contained the promise of harnessing the power of the atom for good and for ill. Unleashing the secrets of the atom was what separated the world’s most advanced and powerful nations from the rest.

This Damoclean era was ushered in 70 years ago, on July 16, 1945, with the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert. The name translates to “Dead Man’s Journey” — fitting, because the detonation triggered a nuclear arms race that made palpable the dark threat of planetary Armageddon. As is the case with others who grew up in the 1960s, some of my most acute, enduring memories are of a childhood shaped by nuclear fears. I was 6 years 
old during the Cuban missile crisis and remember going to bed at night unsettled by the air-raid drills we rehearsed at school and by the worry I saw in my parents eyes as they watched the evening news. A next-door neighbor built a fallout shelter, and I remember being deeply disturbed by my parents’ speculation that we wouldn’t be invited into it, in the event of a disaster, because we were Jewish. Seeing civil-defense posters and sirens atop telephone poles left me daily with a knot in my stomach. The famous Lyndon B. Johnson campaign ad suggesting that electing Barry Goldwater would bring America closer to nuclear war — the one in which a little girl plays in the flowers, oblivious to the imminent bloom of a mushroom cloud — was politically effective because it captured the gestalt of the era so perfectly. It only ran once, but it lingered in many people’s minds for years to come.

Decades of the Cold War kept these anxieties alive but also somehow allayed them. Deterrence, it turned out, worked. The United States and the Soviet Union never embarked on World War III because the cost of a potential conflict was so high. Fear kept the peace, a perverse bargain. When push came to shove it was in proxy wars. But even then, the prospect of nuclear escalation created an incentive to maintain conflicts within limits and to seek solutions to disputes that threatened to get out of hand.

With the end of the Cold War, there was hope that the world might consign such bleak strategies to history and negotiate away its weapons. But instead, a different reality has emerged. Nuclear issues remain as urgent as ever. In the past few years, the world has been shaken by the Fukushima disaster, disturbed by nuclear saber rattling in North Korea, unnerved by weapons security in Pakistan, and stirred by the promise of a then-new U.S. President Barack Obama during a speech in Prague that he would make the elimination of nukes a central goal of his administration. And few things have dominated 2015 thus far like efforts to keep Iran from acquiring the bomb.

The debate around Iran, in particular, reveals much about the current phase of the nuclear age, underscoring that lofty ambitions, such as those Obama sketched out in Prague, are nowhere near realization and may never be. Although deterrence still works in certain circumstances — India and Pakistan have avoided major conflict, for instance, and Israel’s neighbors are less inclined to attack it — a new set of problems has emerged. Ukraine illustrates one of them. If a nuclear power is willing to be bolder than another, it can take limited, conventional actions without fear of major pushback. In other words, Russia, a struggling shadow of a former superpower, can maintain influence in its near abroad that would be impossible were it not for Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.

But there is also the threat of a country breaking out from the Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which attempts to keep weapons in the hands of the original five nuclear nations (the United States, Britain, China, Russia, and France). Aspirant nuclear powers, such as North Korea, have found that ignoring this international treaty can pay off: Being willing, or seen as willing, to flaunt such agreements grants negotiating leverage. As former U.S. President Bill Clinton said — in an era when the West regularly cut deals by offering aid to North Korea in order to forestall Pyongyang’s bomb-building efforts — “North Korea is a country whose cash crop has been missiles and weapons.” But, of course, the Hermit Kingdom’s regime also learned another important lesson: Once a country has nuclear weapons, there is very little the rest of the world can do about it. (The greatest flaw in the NPT is that it lacks any effective enforcement mechanism against violators.) Thus, Kim Jong Un’s government, like those of Pakistan, India, and Israel, arguably has gained influence from having an arsenal.

While Iran’s foray toward joining the nuclear club undoubtedly has been inspired by these other countries’ experiences, it is a special case, full of apparent contradictions. On the one hand, some national security experts argue that a nuclear Iran would be contained by nuclear forces — the United States and Israel — poised to deliver deathblows 
within minutes of a first strike. In other words, any nuclear action by Tehran would be suicidal.

On the other hand, many observers worry that a nuclear Iran could take the world to a proliferation tipping point. Given the tensions and rivalries in the Middle East, Iran getting the bomb might trigger an arms race in the region. And with each new player in the nuclear game, risks mount that weapons will fall into the 
wrong hands, perhaps those of terrorists. The Middle East is the kind of place where roiling instability could open the door to nuclear miscalculations or misadventures, and the notion of a suicide-embracing terrorist group having any sort of nuclear capability is especially chilling. Put simply, a nuclear Tehran could fundamentally alter the calculus of the nuclear age and usher in a world where the danger of the intentional or accidental use of nukes would be substantially higher than at any time in the past 70 years.

But in a further twist, of all the threats associated with Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps one of the greatest is distraction. At the end of the day, the long-tail risk of a low-probability, high-cost event draws down the world’s diplomatic and security bandwidth heavily.

With a country like Iran, this can be especially dangerous. Tehran has been doing pretty well causing trouble in the Middle East for the past three and a half decades without the bomb — and no nuclear deal will address this problem. In fact, were a deal to produce a rapprochement with Iran and a dropping of all or some of the sanctions that have burdened its economy, in a practical sense Tehran might become considerably more dangerous than it has been: It would have more money for its state sponsorship of terrorism, for example, and gain more stature in the international community.

Already, Washington has devoted so much effort to pursuing a nuclear deal that it has incidentally empowered Tehran in the Middle East. In Iraq, the United States has effectively been flying air support for Iranian-led or -assisted missions against the Islamic State; Tehran gets credit, and the government in Baghdad, which appears to be more beholden to Iran than ever, is strengthened too. Washington has softened its stance on Iran’s client and friend, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ensuring that Tehran maintains a foothold in Syria (where the United States is also working to destroy Assad’s enemies). And in Yemen, America did not attempt to push back in a meaningful way against the Houthi coup that has left a Shiite group, with ties to Iran, in a position of enhanced power. These geopolitical gains will have long-lasting consequences for the United States and may present greater risks, day in and day out, than those posed by Iranian nukes.

Of course, Washington isn’t alone in being guilty of distraction: Iran’s government is too. Iranian leaders could be doing more for their people, in the face of nationwide economic troubles, if precious resources were not directed toward a nuclear program. Meanwhile, Israeli officials have made a great show of declaring the threat of an Iranian bomb as “existential” — partly, it seems, to distract from their inability to deal with the more imminent peril caused by the changing demographics within their claimed borders.

Other risky technologies are also being neglected. Unlike nukes, for instance, cyberweapons are so low cost that constant, web-based conflict seems a real and destabilizing possibility.

At the dawn of the nuclear age, national security officials could not win top jobs without knowing the language of nukes. In contrast, today the vast majority of these officials are cyber-illiterate. The world thus finds itself ill-prepared to deal with both the morphing threats of old technology and the emerging threats of new ones.

The right nuclear deal with Iran, if honored, monitored, and effectively enforced, might reduce the real risk of a dangerous turn for the worse in the nuclear age. It is a worthy goal and should be pursued, as should the establishment of a new nonproliferation regime with much greater enforcement capabilities. The costs of failure on such efforts are clearly enormous. But one lesson of the past 70 years has been what happens when the Atomic Age has a country looking and devoting its precious resources too heavily in one direction. I worry that, in making a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons its No. 1 national security priority, the Obama administration may be overlooking or exacerbating other problems that will haunt America and the Middle East for years to come. As was the case in 1945, and as it has been ever thus, the Jornada del Muerto is paved with good intentions.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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