Putting The Danger of a Nuclear-Armed Iran in a Historical Context

Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Matthew Fuhrmann and University of Virginia Professor Todd S. Sechser have a piece in The Christian Science Monitor in which they call for a reality check on the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

The crux of their argument is that advocates of the “military option” embrace two false claims: one, that a nuclear armed Iran would blackmail its neighbors, and two, that other countries would be forced to accommodate Iranian demands.

While neoconservatives and Iran hawks usually frame a nuclear-armed Iran as a unique and isolated situation, Fuhrmann and Sechser decide to look to the behavior of nuclear-armed countries to predict how Iran might act if it acquired the bomb.

They write:

A close look at the history of the nuclear age shows that countries with nuclear weapons are neither more likely to make coercive threats nor more likely to succeed in blackmailing their adversaries. Nuclear powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union certainly made numerous threats after they acquired nuclear weapons. But so did Libya, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Venezuela, and dozens of other countries that did not possess the bomb. Nuclear weapons are not a prerequisite for engaging in military blackmail.


Further, there is scant evidence that possessing the bomb makes coercive threats more successful when they are made. Nuclear weapons did not help the United States compel North Korea to release the USS Pueblo and its crew in 1968. Israeli coercive threats backed by the implicit threat of nuclear war failed against Syria prior to the 1982 Lebanon War, just as British threats against Argentina in 1982 were unable to compel the return of the Falkland Islands, despite Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons.

This is exactly the type of thinking that is noticeably missing from most discussions about Iran.  Even Richard Haass, a self-proclaimed card-carrying realist and President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has joined the hysteria surrounding the idea of a nuclear Iran and, as I wrote nearly a year ago, publicly burned his realist card when he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

What is an Iranian threat? Well, the idea of a Middle East in which not simply Iran, but other countries would then likely follow suit and have nuclear weapons. The idea that that would dramatically increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons would not only be introduced in the physical sense, but used, goes up tremendously with all that means for that part of the world, access to oil and the rest.

While Haass, along with his fellow Iran-hawks, are free to hypothesize about how a nuclear Iran might behave, the history of nuclear proliferation would suggest very much the opposite. Historically, the only time nuclear weapons were used was when just one country possessed them.  But Iran hawks have typically rejected the realist notion that mutually-assured destruction would help deter a nuclear Iran.

Fuhrman and Sechser write:

Many hardliners say Iran’s ideological fervor makes it unique. US officials voiced similar concerns about Mao’s China in the early 1960s. But nuclear weapons did not embolden China. Iran today is certainly different from China in the 1960s, but policymakers would do well to remember that apocalyptic fears about nuclear proliferation are not new.

They conclude:

We should be careful to avoid the twin mistakes of inflating the Iranian threat and downplaying the dangers of military strikes. The United States and its allies should be resolved to curtail Iran’s nuclear program by supporting harsher economic sanctions, but they should not panic and take risky military gambles. Hysteria about nuclear weapons and blackmail is wrong – and potentially dangerous.

It’s a relief to see that political realism and the ability to put the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran in a historical context still exists. It’s reassuring to know that this view has not been completely overlooked in favor of hysteria over a supposedly irrational, suicidal, blackmailing, nuclear-armed Iran.

Indeed, it’s even more refreshing to hear this viewpoint voiced by Fuhrman, a Fellow at the same institution as Richard Haass.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.


One Comment

  1. Yes, that deterrence works is a good point to make. Even more important, however, is the announcement today by US official media (aka the New York Times) that US-Israeli cyber attacks have set back the Iranian nuclear program by about 5 years. The cyber attacks are continuing, and will probably extend even further the time it will take Iran to get a bomb. The threat of war over the Iranian nuclear program, which I told you several months ago was swiftly diminishing, no longer exists.

    The debate is now reduced to a few left-wingers trading barbs with the neocons — that is to say, it’s no longer of relevance to anybody except these two groups. Time to wrap up the Daily Talking Points, fellas, and move on. I suggest a focus on I-P and the all the monstrosities the Israelis are committing on the ground there.

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