Iran’s nuclear program made headlines for the umpteenth time last month when Iran responded to the latest round of economic sanctions by threatening to close the straits of Hormuz. Most debate in the United States, Israel, and PolicyMic revolves around the use of economic sanctions and potentially military force to stop Iran’s program. President Barack Obama, like President George Bush before him, refuses to take military force “off the table,” while most of the Republican field attacks that stance as too weak.
Both sides of the debate have focused on short-term solutions for Iran, failing to recognize the need for a long-term strategy that treats nuclear proliferation as a global, not regional, issue.
Proliferation ties national fates together, not only because even a small nuclear war would have global consequences. Nuclear technology frequently crosses borders. The rogue Pakistani scientist AQ Kahn had a global network, while Syria constructed a clandestine nuclear facility with the aid of North Korea. This facility was destroyed by Israel, which acquired its own nukes with the help of France.
An international problem requires an international solution, and that is why we have the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which conducts worldwide inspections under the authority of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty, first signed in 1968, recognized five pre-existing nuclear powers as legitimate. Only Israel, India, and Pakistan refused to sign. All other states agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and submit to inspections. In exchange, they received civilian nuclear technology from the five possessor states. North Korea eventually withdrew from the treaty, kicked out the IAEA, and became a ninth nuclear power after flagrantly violating the treaty for years. The IAEA correctly judged that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program in the 21st century, although it has since collected damning evidence that Iran does have one.
Despite that knowledge, little can realistically prevent Iranian proliferation. Russia and China continue to trade with the rogue state, thwarting U.S. economic sanctions, which have a poor track record anyway. Military force could only delay Iran for a few years, despite having devastating consequences. Moreover, Iran is a paradoxical country where the population generally dislikes its international isolation, (and is willing to sacrifice its weapons development but not peaceful nuclear power) even though the regime exploits popular suspicion of the West (which largely dates back to 1953). Thus, a pre-emptive strike would actually stabilize the regime — but sanctions or force used in response to Iranian aggression or nuclear completion will likely weaken it.
There is precedent for convincing a nuclear power to abandon its weapons. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan voluntarily returned Soviet weapons to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, while South Africa was talked out of its own program. Multilateral sanctions are significantly more effective than unilateral ones, and Russia and China will be far more likely to play ball after Iran is proven guilty beyond a doubt.
Whatever happens, other nations will be watching. The United States has attacked Iraq despite its nuclear innocence but failed to sufficiently punish North Korea for crossing the finish line. The U.S. needs to isolate North Korea even more and do the same to Iran if it crosses the threshold. However, the U.S. cannot afford to take a hard line against countries other major powers believe may be innocent. The U.S. must further reduce the appearance of hypocrisy by gradually reducing its own stockpile of arms, as obliged by Article VI of the NPT. It can also encourage states to sign Addition Protocols granting the IAEA more latitude.
So far, nuclear weapons seem to have saved more lives than they’ve ended. But this cannot last indefinitely. The U.S. has had several close calls with the USSR and Russia despite geographic distance, diplomatic safety measures, and disciplined militaries. These factors are lacking, however, when nuclear weapons spread to the developing world. When enough hostile nuclear states are in close enough proximity, it may be impossible to identify a nuclear attacker — making retaliation non-credible, thus incentivizing a nuclear first strike. And there are non-state actors who already recognize the opportunity to steal a nuke from an unstable state.
Although Obama made some noises about non-proliferation in his Nobel speech and with the START treaty two years ago, he hasn’t shown any of the necessary leadership since and hasn’t put adequate pressure on Korea. The Republicans look even worse — Mitt Romney called START “Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake,” while Gingrich and Santorum have threatened Iran with regime change while continuing to neglect Korea. Lest one take comfort in Ron Paul’s pacifism, he would simply ignore the problem and has indulged in paranoid conspiracy theories about the UN and other international organizations key to supporting the IAEA’s mission. Americans need to tell their leaders to change — there’s more than the economy at stake.
Photo Credit: Konrad Andrews