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Iran and the “Nuclear Domino” Myth

Matthew Kroenig continues his neverendingseries of articles promoting war with Iran. I’m not all that interested in his argument about Obama, but I wanted to respond to some assertions that he makes about what would happen after Iran acquired nuclear weapons. Kroenig writes:

Nuclear weapons in Iran would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

All of these claims are wrong. Johan Bergenas specifically addressed two of these claims in a 2010 article for Foreign Affairs. He rejected the idea that the nonproliferation regime would collapse because of a nuclear-armed Iran. On the NPT itself, he said:

Its more than 180 committed parties are unlikely to allow Iran’s nuclear program to demolish an institution that is — and has been for four decades — the foundation of nonproliferation efforts.

As for the fear of a “nuclear domino effect,” Bergenas cites past experience with new nuclear-weapons states to show this idea to be another myth:

But there’s one problem with this “nuclear domino” scenario: the historical record does not support it. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, many have feared rapid and widespread nuclear proliferation; 65 years later, only nine countries have developed nuclear weapons.

Notably, Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has not prompted any of its neighbors to do likewise, nor has North Korea’s nuclear tests led to further proliferation in East Asia. If a state is determined to build nuclear weapons, the nonproliferation regime cannot prevent this from happening, but the strength of that regime is that is gives the vast majority of states incentives not to pursue such weapons.

He continues:

Predictions of catastrophic consequences resulting from a nuclear Iran are not only wrong but counterproductive. The assertion that the widespread proliferation is unavoidable could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The myth of a nuclear domino effect creates an excuse for other Middle Eastern countries — expecting that their neighbors will be nuclear powers — to acquire nuclear weapons themselves.

Iran hawks have to resort to these myths in order to make the extreme policy of preventive war seem more reasonable. It makes it easier to propose illegal military action as if it were a sensible alternative to catastrophe, when this would do nothing to prevent proliferation and would almost certainly guarantee the outcome that it is supposed to stop.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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