Among the many reasons why Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons (a sentiment with which any reasonable person must agree), one hears the argument that it would initiate a cascade of proliferation across the Middle East. First Saudi Arabia, then Turkey, then Egypt, then God knows who would inevitably acquire nuclear weapons – and quickly. So goes the conventional wisdom expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Stephen Harper and any number of hawkish think-tank experts.
There is considerable historical evidence to suggest that this would not happen. If it did, it would take a long time. Talk of rapid proliferation across the region is simply not apt.
Since the dawn of the nuclear era, various leaders and analysts have predicted that nuclear proliferation would take place rapidly and inexorably. Those countries that could build the bomb would do so, and others would build it in response. It has been predicted that almost 50 countries would eventually join the nuclear club alongside the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
That prediction has proved wrong. Only four additional countries – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – have acquired nuclear weapons. One country unambiguously tried and was stopped (Iraq, before it was foolish enough to invade Kuwait). In each case, the reasons why these countries decided to build nuclear weapons had to do with the specifics of their security situations rather than a reflex action. This record is hardly cause for celebration but also hardly the proliferation threat so often forecast.
Moreover, neighbours were threatened when these countries acquired nuclear weapons but decided not to build nuclear weapons in response. Japan and South Korea did not build them after China and then North Korea did, despite chilling rhetoric from the one-party states that easily matched anything Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said about Israel. No Arab country built them after Israel did. Yes, Pakistan followed India into the nuclear club, but no other country in the region has.
Rather than build their own bombs, most countries faced with neighbours acquiring nuclear weapons have sought alliances and protection from others – most often the United States.
Thus, contrary to popular wisdom, experience has been that most states do not build nuclear bombs, even when they have the opportunity and, seemingly, the motive to do so. If there is a norm of international conduct regarding nuclear weapons, it is a norm of non-proliferation. For every state that has developed nuclear weapons, there are dozens more, including Canada, that could have but did not. South Africa did but then gave them up. There are several, including Brazil, Argentina and Sweden, that went down the road toward nuclear weapons but stopped and went back. There are even a few – Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – that inherited nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed but soon gave them up voluntarily.
And yet, in the Iranian case, we continue to be captivated by an argument that widespread regional proliferation is inevitable. Why? In part, it is because of what some scholars of proliferation call a “proliferation narrative” that has gripped the majority of analysts and practitioners of international affairs.
This narrative, which focuses on power as the key element of international affairs, holds that nuclear weapons are the ultimate expression of power; that states seek to maximize their power; and so states, all other things being equal, will want nuclear weapons. Moreover, states facing a nuclear-armed foe will almost certainly want their own bomb. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, this narrative continues to hold sway in large parts of the academic and practitioner communities.
Another reason may be that pointing to an inevitable proliferation cascade is ample justification for those who wish to attack Iran to do so. It is a powerful narrative: “Yes, an attack on Iran may be dangerous, uncertain and could lead to a regional war, but far better to try to stop the Iranians from getting the bomb before X number of other [whisper when you say this] Muslim countries across the Middle East decide to build bombs as well.”
But would they? And could they do it quickly? Despite some musings by some members of the Saudi Royal Family, it is debatable as to whether any other Middle East country would automatically decide to build a bomb if Iran ever did. Moreover, even if other states in the region did decide to build bombs, it would take decades for them to do so. Experience seems to show that most of them would eventually counter an Iranian bomb by moving even further into the security embrace of the United States – an outcome profoundly at odds with Iran’s interests.
The idea of a rapid and inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East is simply not reasonable – but it works well as a scare tactic to justify a war with Iran that might otherwise be a hard sell to a war-weary American public.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is also an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.