The reason the Shah even signed the NPT in the first place was so that he could develop and expand his country’s nuclear energy program. Fast forward 40 years, and that one little signature is essentially the spine of the international community’s charge of nuclear malfeasance against Iran and its current regime. Without it, Tehran’s behavior would legally be no different than India and Japan’s, and in fact less “rogue” than Israel’s. Without that little signature, we wouldn’t even be having a debate over “targeted” multilateral sanctions vs. “crippling” sanctions. There’d be no hand-wringing over Chinese waivers and watered-down measures, because the case for punishing Iran’s nuclear behavior would have zero international basis. ~Kevin Sullivan

This is right and it is a very important detail that ought to be emphasized more often. No doubt hawks would point to this as proof that the NPT is not very useful, since any regime that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons strongly enough will simply do so and will withdraw from the treaty if necessary. Following up on the previous post, suppose that Iran is ultimately not all that interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. If it were that interested, what would stop Iran’s government from withdrawing from a treaty its own leaders recognize as a failure in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons? Yes, it’s possible that Iran wants to use the protections of the NPT for as long as it can before withdrawing, but it is also possible that Iran more or less continues to abide by the treaty because its primary goal in developing nuclear power is to realize its civilian applications. If true, that would be compeletely devastating to the “mad mullah” cottage industry of alarmist commentary coming from Western hawks.

When Boot says that “no one” worries about U.S. and U.S.-allied nuclear arsenals, he means no one in the West worries about them, because there is little chance that those weapons will ever be directed at other Western countries. If we take their public statements at all seriously, officials from many states in the Near East worry about Israel’s nuclear weapons, and if we put any stock in the claim that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability one of the reasons why Iran would want to have this technology is to have the ability to offset Israel’s nuclear advantage if necessary. There are probably more than a few Iranians who would find it strange that nuclear-weapons states that start or escalate international wars fairly often over the last thirty years worry about the eventual Iranian acquisition of a few warheads.

At the heart of all this is the basic contradiction in most Americans’ thinking on non-proliferation: the U.S. and our allies have vital security concerns that make our possession of nuclear weapons legitimate and even beneficial to global stability, while the possession of these weapons by non-allied and rival states represents a grave threat to international security and cannot be tolerated. This view depends almost entirely on believing that the internal character of a regime dictates the nature of its external policies, and pretty clearly this belief is false. Indeed, when the Shah was in power in Iran one would have never heard about how the repressive, brutal dictator’s tactics against political opponents at home meant that his foreign policy would be destabilizing, reckless or aggressive. What mattered and what still matters to Wasington is not the regime type, but the government’s alignment with the U.S.

The argument that “stable” democracies can be trusted with a nuclear arsenal and “unstable” dictatorships cannot be trusted with one is just an extension of very questionable democratic peace theory, and it has become more fashionable as more of our allies have democratized and as more democratic nuclear-weapons states have become closer allies. According to this theory, democracies do not start wars and they do not wage war on other democracies. Historically, this is false on both counts, and it is obviously false when it concerns new democracies. The assumption is that there are more institutional and popular checks and constraints on what a democratic government can do, and therefore there are fewer risks when such governments control such terrible weapons.

However, in both well-established and fragile democracies in which there are strong military institutions and/or a powerful executive, we see that many crucial national security and military decisions are often made with little or no legislative and public oversight. In some weak democracies with a strong military establishment, as in Pakistan, sometimes the military moves towards disastrous escalation without the knowledge of the civilian government, which is what happened during the Kargil war before Sharif was overthrown. In practice, there are very few internal checks on democratic governments when the leadership decides to use force, and even fewer when it comes to executive decisions about the kinds of weapons that will be used in war. Our government reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in a first strike, and if such a horrible decision were ever being seriously considered it would obviously not be subjected to legislative scrutiny and public debate. The decision to use atomic bombs on Japanese cities was a purely executive one. One might also consider the grim possibility that in an atmosphere of alarmism and panic a large majority might all too readily support the first use of nuclear weapons against a state that has been regularly portrayed as insane, suicidal and bent on our destruction.

Regardless of the type of regime, there will always be the same ends-justify-the-means, total war calculations and rationalizations when it comes to contemplating the use of such horrific weapons, and there will also be the same self-interested calculations that pull political and military leaders back from the abyss. Iran hawks would like everyone to believe that the Iranian government is headed by people so fanatical and insane that these calculations no longer apply, but there has never been a government so ideological and unhinged that it would risk its survival by engaging in a war that it knew for certain would lead to its annihilation. Iran seems like a particularly poor candidate to be the first one to do this.

Boot notes that Iran has no safeguards against the “capricious” use of nukes. I would just observe that Iran at present has no safeguards in place concerning the use of nuclear weapons because it does not have any nuclear weapons. Does anyone think that Iran’s extensive military and security apparatus would not create such safeguards in the event that Iran acquired such weapons? Hasn’t every military establishment in every nuclear-weapons state developed such safeguards? Of course, all of them have done so, because that is what any minimally self-interested government does when it develops weapons as powerful as these. When China acquired nuclear weapons, they were in the hands of revolutionary zealots who jailed and killed anyone opposed to them, and yet somehow forty years have gone by and China has still never used its weapons in war. The burden of proof is on the alarmists to prove that Iran would be different if it ever does acquire the weapons they always claim it is just on the verge of acquiring.