Iranian Bomb Won’t Trigger Mid East Nuclear Arms Race

Two proliferation experts had a provocative piece in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, on Wednesday. William Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the Monterey Institute conducted a multi-year study examining declassified national intelligence estimates (NIEs), and concluded “if one nation should decide to disavow its nonproliferation commitments, there is little reason to expect an epidemic.”

They wrote:

This time, the sky is surely falling. At the very least, the world is at a “tipping point” in the direction of a nuclear armed crowd with far more countries actively pursuing and acquiring nuclear weapons. On this point, Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ban Ki-moon and John McCain all agree.

This proliferation pessimism often finds expression in metaphors about nuclear dominoes, chains, cascades and waves. In most cases the gloomy scenario anticipates a reactive process in which Iran’s “going nuclear” leads to decisions by other states in the region and possibly elsewhere to follow suit in quick succession.

Such prognoses are often cited in support of arguments for urgent action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. And yet, as was the case with the “domino theory” of the spread of Communism, little evidence is marshaled to support assertions about reactive proliferation.

A review of declassified U.S. national intelligence estimates (NIEs), as well as scholarly prognoses, shows that nuclear alarmism has been a feature of U.S. threat assessments throughout most of the nuclear age.

A new NIE on Iran is expected soon, and its findings are already being questioned before its publication. As covered in Wednesday’s Talking Points, Stuart Eizenstat and Mark Brzezinski have an opinion piece in Politico where they deem the 2007 NIE on Iran insufficiently damning and insist the intelligence agents who compose the upcoming NIE “answer the right questions and get the analysis straight.”

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Past U.S. alarmism tells us nothing about whether Sunni Arab states will seek to go nuclear if Iran does. The headline on this piece is totally misleading — there’s nothing in the body of the article that speaks to what the Sunni states think about an Iranian bomb, or what they may do if Iran joins the nuclear club.

    I really don’t like to be so blunt in commenting about one of my favorite sites, but this piece shouldn’t have been posted. It cries out for an editor who will recognize the mismatch between the thesis offered and the total lack of evidence presented to back up that thesis. It may be that Potter and Mukhatzanova offer some evidence in their article (which I haven’t read), but one gets no indication of it from what’s presented here.

  2. There are other recent research papers, books and articles in the same genre as Potter/Mukhatzhanova IHT piece.

    Saying “the bombs are substantially valueless, a very considerable waste of money and effort, and ‘absolute’ primarily in their irrelevance”, John Mueller contends nuclear weapons are not and have never been of any utility to anyone.

    Also, you can download an academic research paper by
    Philipp Bleek, 2009-02-15 “Reactive Proliferation: Why Nuclear Dominoes Rarely Fall” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA’s 50th ANNUAL CONVENTION “EXPLORING THE PAST, ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE”.

    It is interesting to note that Iran herself, the alleged future trigger of the avalanch of mid east proliferation, has no demonstrable use for nuclear weapons.

    Even in a fight for her very survival, it is impossible to imagine a rational defensive scenario where Iran would escalate a losing conflict to a nuclear war when the likely adversaries and/or their allies are able (and eagerly willing [Beny Moris]) to “[sic] totally obliterate them”[Mrs. Clinton] and then some. Similarly, it is unimaginable that a proud nation would welcome a pariah status by testing a weapon after 118 member country Non-aligned movement (NAM), China, Brazil and Turkey have all gone out on a limb defending Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear energy programme.

    For those whose memory of Iraq and WMD is still vivid, it is difficult not to see this persistant talk of Iran and the bomb as pretext.

  3. “John Meuller contends nuclear weapons are not and have never been of any utility to anyone.” Really? Despite the (false) claims that the Japanese were ready to surrender months before the bomb was dropped, the fact is that the bomb finally got them to capitulate and saved us from having to invade the home islands.

    Nuclear weapons prevented World War III. Without them we have had a conventional war with the Soviets at some point.

    Nuclear weapons are a terrible thing, and one hopes they will never again be used. But never of any utility to anyone? That’s nonsense.

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