Stopping or slowing the spread of nuclear weapons has been a primary
foreign policy goal for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
During the Clinton administration, for example, Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright explicitly gave the policy a very high priority.
U.S. policy has always focused on three tactics to stop nuclear
proliferation in other countries: banning the materials and technology
needed to develop nuclear weapons, punitive economic sanctions, and
military action. Although banning materials can slow nuclear
proliferation, economic sanctions and military action are
A “rally around the flag” effect against these external threats
usually makes getting atomic weapons popular, even if the populace is
fed up with their country’s regime—as in the case of theocratic Iran.
Military threats or actions can cause countries that are developing
nuclear technology to accelerate their atomic program and shroud the
location of the facilities to protect them from bombing. The invasion of
Iraq and subsequent U.S. military threats against Iran have actually
intensified the Iranian desire to get nuclear weapons to keep the
Iran has hidden and buried nuclear facilities and put them in
populated areas, which would be difficult for the United States to bomb
without causing an international outcry. U.S. intelligence is unlikely
to know the locations of all of the Iranian nuclear facilities, and Iran
may even have a separate parallel set of facilities unbeknownst to the
Both liberal and conservative U.S. advocates of non-proliferation
policies pay too little attention to the effect U.S. interventionist
foreign policy has on the acceleration of nuclear proliferation around
the world. Countries interested in developing nuclear technology saw the
respect that a nuclear North Korea got from the United States as well as
the absence of respect that a non-nuclear Iraq received.
Many conservatives neglect this intervention-proliferation causal
relationship because they believe U.S. military interventions overseas
are necessary for the promotion of the national interest. On the other
hand, some liberals minimize this relationship because they advocate
military interventions for “humanitarian” purposes.
Both camps, however, should realize the long-term effects of U.S.
military interventions on the proliferation of nuclear weapons around
If threats are unlikely to dissuade Iran from rapidly acquiring
nuclear weapons and will instead persuade it to do so, what can be done?
The United States needs to propose a grand bargain with Iran—such as
that offered to North Korea and accepted by Libya. In exchange for
ending its nuclear program, Iran would be offered a pledge of
non-aggression by the United States and Israel and full economic and
diplomatic integration with the world.
Although Israel considers Iran its main threat, Iran considers the
Israeli nuclear arsenal of hundreds of warheads a major threat as well.
With the U.S. and Israeli threats neutralized by the non-aggression
treaty, the Iranians just might feel secure enough to scrap their
nuclear program. But even with that offer, Iran, which lives in a
dangerous neighborhood, may still elect to proceed with its quest for
Nuclear powers, such as the United States and Israel, are
hypocritical in denying other countries this ultimate guarantor of
national security. Besides, the United States, with thousands of nuclear
warheads, could easily deter an Iranian nuclear attack with only a few
warheads. The United States deterred other radical rogue regimes when
they obtained nuclear weapons, including the Soviet Union in the late
1940s and Maoist China in the mid-1960s.
Although the Iranians support terrorist groups, Iran has a home
address that can be threatened with nuclear retaliation; the terrorists
do not. More than likely, the Iranian government would be reluctant to
give nuclear weapons, which are expensive to develop, to unpredictable
terrorists groups that might be traced back to Iran—thus putting a
bull’s eye on Iran.
Because the United States has no viable military solution against the
Iranian nuclear program, it should offer Iran a grand bargain. If that
fails, the United States may have to accept a nuclear Iran—an outcome
far from optimal, but not catastrophic either.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.