The Arms Race that Won't Happen

Nuclear proliferation is always said to be on the verge of suddenly accelerating, and somehow it never does.


If you want to understand the intensifying showdown between the United States and Iran, consider the headline in The Washington Post on the threat of rapid nuclear proliferation: "Many Nations Ready to Break into Nuclear Club."

It highlights one of the dangers cited by those who favor military action against Iran. President Barack Obama says that if Iran gets the bomb, "other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world."

A plausible threat? It may sound that way. But it also sounded that way in 1981—when that Washington Post story ran.

Nuclear proliferation is always said to be on the verge of suddenly accelerating, and somehow it never does. In 1981, there were five declared nuclear powers—the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France—as well as Israel, which was (and is) undeclared.

And today? The number of members added since then is not 15 but three: India, Pakistan and North Korea. Most of the other countries on the list of likely proliferators never came close—including Argentina, Chile, Morocco and Tunisia. Iraq tried and failed. Libya made an effort and then chose to give up.

The peril was greatly overblown. It probably is again. But our leaders are not about to let mere history debunk the apocalyptic scenarios. They are committed to a policy based on fear rather than experience.

The United States keeps trying to force Iran to abandon its suspected efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, and so far it has been rebuffed. Both Obama and Mitt Romney have said they would use force rather than let Iran acquire nukes. Chances are good that whoever wins in November, we will be at war with Tehran sometime in the next four years.

But there is no reason to think Iran would ever use such weapons, and there is little reason to think it would spur other countries to get them. If all it takes to unleash regional proliferation is one fearsome state with nukes, the Middle East would have gone through it already—since Israel has had them for decades.

Why would governments in the region respond differently to Iran? Many of them are allied with the U.S.—which means Iran can't attack or threaten them without fear of overwhelming retaliation. Turkey, as a member of NATO, enjoys a formal defense guarantee from Washington. The U.S. might offer similar assurances to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other nervous neighbors.

One way or another, they would probably find they can manage fine. Iran is no scarier than Mao's China was in 1964, when it detonated its first atomic device. Writes Francis Gavin, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, "It was predicted that India, Indonesia and Japan might follow."

At the time, he noted in a 2009 article in International Security, "A U.S. government document identified 'at least 11 nations (India, Japan, Israel, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Canada, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania and Yugoslavia)' with the capacity to go nuclear, a number that would soon 'grow substantially' to include 'South Africa, the United Arab Republic, Spain, Brazil and Mexico.'" Mexico?

In recent decades, some countries have actually given up their nukes—including Ukraine (which inherited them from the Soviet Union) and South Africa. Others, like Brazil and Sweden, have scrapped their weapons programs. After the Cold War, it was assumed the newly reunified Germany would want to assert its new status by joining the nuclear club. It has yet to exhibit a glimmer of interest.

A nuclear Iran would soon learn something previous nuclear powers already know: These weapons are not much use except to deter nuclear attack. What help have they been for the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan?

China invaded Vietnam in 1979 to force the enemy's withdrawal from Cambodia. The Vietnamese not only refused but sent the People's Liberation Army home with its tail between its legs. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory, but the island has remained functionally independent despite the threat of nuclear coercion.

If Iran does get nukes, its neighbors that have survived without them will find that nothing much has changed. Nuclear proliferation is the danger that lurks just over the horizon, and that's where it is likely to stay.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at

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  1. The response will be that the mullahs are crazy, that they are different and insane, so we can’t expect that they will behave like rational actors, so history is no guarantee of future performance. Of course, that ignores that the mullahs like their power just fine, thank you very much, and have no interest in getting taken out or seeing their glorious country reduced to so much glow-in-the-dark sand.

    1. Agreed. They appear to be hanging onto that power by the skin of their teeth as it is. The bluster against israel is merely a distraction to keep the pitchforks at bay.

      My guess is that we could effect regime change there if we wanted by covert or political means, but they would be replaced with…..?

      1. The notion that the theocratic govt of Iran is holding on by “the skin of their teeth” needs close examination. That’s what the US wants everyone to believe, in order to justify regime change.

        The reality may be otherwise. The Shah had his comprador class, those who supported him and were supported by him — essentially quislings (I hesitate to use such strong language, but it is apt). These were educated cosmopolitan city dwellers, who were happy to see Iran dominated by Western values and embracing modernity. And I suspect most first world Westerners approve. An Iran in the Western image would be a good thing, and a diminished influence of fundamentalist, conservative Islam in Iran would be “progress”.

        The bedrock values of the Iranian masses however — despite the noisy visibility of the foreign supported opposition green movement — is almost certainly firmly grounded in mainstream Islam. Beyond the cities, Sharia is the rule, and the Mullahs represent the values of the majority. And that’s the way they vote. (The notion that the 2009 vote was fraudulent is simply not true.)

    2. Yes, a culture that celebrates the martyrdom of Ali (Ashura) by self-flagellation with blades until one is covered in blood is a culture that is a paragon of rationality and peace.

      p.s. Kids LOVE this holiday!

      1. Yes – it is dangerous to assume your (possible) enemies have the same motivations as we do.

        1. They might be crazy motherfuckers, but I doubt they’re suicidal. Think about the consequences if the Iranians were to use a nuclear weapon on any other country in the world. Tehran would be obliterated in a matter of minutes.

          There’s crazy, and then there’s suicidally batshit fucking crazy. The Iranian leadership isn’t the latter.

          1. Think about the consequences if the Iranians were to use a nuclear weapon on any other country in the world.

            Think about the consequences of invading Russia while still at war with Britain.

            Tehran would be obliterated in a matter of minutes.

            By whom? Suppose it’s just one bomb, put on a Liberian flagged tanker that puts into Gaza. Which then detonates and kills a few million Jews and Arabs.

            After months of forensic work Israel declares that Tehran set them up the bomb. And then… the whole world massively retaliates? In cold blood? Russia doesn’t intervene to protect its client? No one argues that the innocent people of Iran don’t deserve to be nuked for the actions of a few? No one accuses Israel of making it up, or setting off the bomb itself?

            If the bomb travels by ballistic missile then there might be retaliation from Israel–but you don’t think Russia would intervene to protect its client? you really think France and Britain and the Uk and the US would just launch like that, if it were only Israel attacked? 50 years ago, maybe, but politics is very different now.

            1. Gabriel, this is absolutely crazy. If a nuclear detonation in Gaza or wherever were ever traced back to Iran, there would be hell to pay. I highly doubt that the Israelis would feel that their hands are tied. And the Russians? Really? You think that they’re stupid enough to wage war in defense of a small customer which had just committed war crimes and would likely have earned the condemnation of the international community? I find that very unlikely.

          2. “They might be crazy motherfuckers”…

            Why, when I see this sort of thing do I think “More likely you are the Kool-aid-drenched crazy motherfucker.”

            This talk of nuking Tehran and turning the place into a “glassy parking lot” — another favorite fantasy of the arm-chair warriors — is astonishingly monstrous and childish at the same time. It’s very hard to stay reality-connected when faced with such emotion-driven irrationality,… but let me give it a try.

            If the West nuked Iran’s cities, they would kill primarily and with great effectiveness the very opposition on which their hopes for regime change are based, leaving only the rock solid Sharia-supporters of the provinces.

            1. Jeff, why don’t you try some reading comprehension for a change? I don’t think anyone here has advocated turning Tehran into a glassy parking lot. I’m not advocating a first strike policy. I’m merely commenting on the fact that an Iranian move to make a nuclear strike on any city in the world would have major ramifications. Which might entail a retaliatory strike by a nuclear power. Is this really that hard to understand?

              You seem new here, so I’ll clue you in. Very few people on this blog advocate the unilateral use of American military power without provocation. We’re certainly not a bunch of “arm-chair warriors” here – most support a vast reduction of the DoD’s budget and a withdrawal from the United States’ current role as “world policeman”.

      2. The very fact that the Iranian leaders go to such great lengths to convince outsiders of their righteousness is proof enough for me that they are indeed rational. All those public statements, visits to the UN, speeches for global publicity, goofy photo-shopped pictures of missiles, all of that is proof they understand the rest of the world and think they need to prove their legitimacy. If they were truly insane, they wouldn’t waste their time like that.

    3. Wouldn’t it be crazy to melt down perfectly good steel tools into worthless lumps of metal?

      Wouldn’t it be crazy to try to “rationalize” farming by starving tens of millions of people?

      Wouldn’t it be crazy for medical students to repudiate their doctors, counting on their revolutionary consciousness to enable them to make medical decisions?

      Surely I don’t have to name the major world power that pursued these policies, for this audience.

      The government of Iran may be rational, I concede. From what premises are they working? If they are not working from the same premises you are, how can you count on them reaching the same conclusions?

      I do not argue for war with Iran. But this is a government, after all, that drops documents down the 12th Imam’s well for his approval. If we’ve learned anything from the 30’s, it’s that you can’t always talk your way out of war, because war is what your enemy may have already decided on, for reasons that don;t make any sense to you.

      1. Not sure what your point is here. China did all this crazy shit, but was never stupid enough to use nuclear weapons on any of its enemies. And China was a much greater military force than Iran ever will be. If anything, your questions seem to support the notion that even crazy fuckers aren’t crazy enough to incite nuclear wars.

        1. China did all this crazy shit, but was never stupid enough to use nuclear weapons on any of its enemies.

          One more vote for “if one crazy didn’t do it, no crazy ever will”. Your willingness to generalize from one case to support a predetermined conclusion is noted.

          Before the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, you could have made the exact same argument against the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.

          1. I’m not generalizing here. I’m relying on what the mullahs have shown over and over again. They’re not willing to get themselves killed over their crazy beliefs.

            Say what you want about Mao’s policies. They may have been bad for the Chinese. But they sure as hell weren’t bad for Mao himself. It wasn’t crazy for Mao to enact such policies. It may have been evil, but it wasn’t crazy from the perspective of his survival. Nuclear war would have been.

            1. They’re not willing to get themselves killed over their crazy beliefs.

              When Rafsanjani said “Nuclear war? bring it! We’ll get all the Jews!”, he said that because that is what the Iranian government wishes the world to believe.

              Now you are confident enough in your mind-reading abilities to discern that they have no real intention of doing that. But they are, it is undisputed, seeking to acquire the means to implement that intention, aren’t they? When they say they are going to do something, and at great expense try to produce the tools they need to do that thing, is it not criminal folly to just discount the possibility of their doing it? Isn’t it silly to be that complacent?

  2. Whats also not mentioned is that China had nuclear weapons with Mao in charge, and Mao was way worse than any Mullah by far. For US neocons its gospel that Iran is run by fanatics, the reality is that the Iran government is not fanatic but is run by people not interested in the apocalypse, yes they may not tolerate adultery and do other nasty things, but they are not bent on world destruction.

    Iran getting nuclear weapons will be a positive outcome, despite all the doom mongering, it actually will force the various governments to talk to each other and start a real peace process.

    1. “…talk to each other and start a real peace process.”

      Sadly, this will not happen.

    2. Mao was worse than the Mullahs because he was logical (and brutal). At least some of the Mullahs are brutal and illogical.

    3. One irrational dictator didn’t use nuclear weapons; we can therefore confidently conclude that none ever will.

      Too many governments have pursued policies that destroyed their countries , for me to put in faith in that logic.

      The current government of China is evil, but rational, and does not put that sort of power in the hands of one man. I’m not sure we can rest so certain that this will always be the case.

      Talking to each other does not always bring peace. You can give your opponent everything he says he wants to avoid a war; but what if what he really wants IS war, for reasons that don’t make sense to you? Of course this happened in history so many times, yet we always need to relearn the lesson.

      Iran is little threat to the US, but they can certainly kill a lot of Jews or Sunnis–and they may well decide this is what they want.

      “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.” Akbar Rafsanjani, former president of Iran.

      1. Again, if Iran uses a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, it has assured its instantaneous destruction. The mullahs recognize this. It doesn’t take much rationality to prefer one’s life (one of luxury, at that) to death in a nuclear holocaust.

        1. The mullahs recognize this.

          “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”

  3. What worries me is not that the Iranian authorities are fanatics, but that they are irresponsible. Should they manage to create a nuclear weapon, I have no great belief that they would manage to keep control of it. Granted, I find it likelier that this would result in its being detonated within their borders than used in an attack of Israel or the U. S., but I am not as sanguine about it not getting used at all as Mr. Chapman.

    1. I don’t know, so far it hasn’t happened in the former Soviet republic, so I don’t know if Iran would be any worse. I mean they probably would have more of a chance of losing control than in old Russia, but I think it’s in the same ball park. If anything I guess you might have more attempts at getting one than you did in Russia.

      Still, I guess I’m the warhawk here since I have no problem with the US Gov’t using every means short of violence (including cyber ‘attacks’) to stop them from getting one. I mean since we have to have this dumb progressive behemoth state anyway, stopping shitholes from having nukes is as good a diversion for them as anything. Less assets available for them to stop me from hurting myself and all that.

      1. I have no problem with using any means to hand to pound Iran like cheap veal, for any reason whatsoever, or no reason at all. The regime in Iran has about the same legitimacy, to my mind, as a Borgia Pope. I have doubts that any administration we are likely to elect in the near future will do so, however.


  4. North Korea has never threatened to evicerate Israel off the planet. Iran threatens that all the time.

    1. I’m pretty sure North Korea wants Japan to be wiped off the face of the earth.

      1. Yeah, but they don’t go around making a big deal of it all the time.

    2. They sure have some unkind things to say about South Korea.

    3. And that’s bad because…?

      The allied powers wiped Nazi Germany off the map. The Zionist crime-in-progress that you call Israel needs similar correction. And you may have noticed that when Nazi Germany was “wiped off the face of the Earth”, Germany and its people were still there.

      1. Hmm…estimates of the number of deaths of German civilians killed in war crimes committed by the Allies is between 1 and 3 million, depending on the source. So, I would say that between 1 and 3 million German people aren’t still there.

        Based on your rhetoric and use of the phrase “Zionist crime-in-progress”, I’ll go ahead and assume that you really wouldn’t have a problem with such an eventuality happening in Israel. Which is absolutely revolting.

      2. The Pat Buchanan convention is down the hall to your left.

  5. “Many Nations Ready to Break into Nuclear Club, Raid the Bar, Call Some Girls, and Throw a Bitchin’ Party.”


  6. Well you have got to admit that makes a lot of sene dude.

  7. Israel will never allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. Iraq tried it 30 years ago and Israel nipped that in the bud without U.S. help. That’s why I will no longer stand American blood being spilled in that region anymore in acts of military adventurism that Democrat and Republican Administrations are equally guilty of. Israel’s been kicking ass just fine over there for 60 years and they sure as hell don’t need our permission or help in doing so.

  8. These weapons are not much use except to deter nuclear attack.

    Digging canals, propelling spacecraft, bombing back to Stone Age, ….

    1. Digging canals with nuclear weapons never happened. It was proposed but people realized it was a batshit crazy plan. Spacecraft have never been propelled with nukes. Two nuclear weapons were used to prevent millions of casualties in an invasion of mainland Japan, which currently possesses the third largest, mainly tech-driven, economy in the world (hardly stone age).

      1. Spacecraft have never been propelled with nukes – because of politics. The Orion pusher design is by far the fastest, longest range spacecraft designed using current technology.

      2. Interestingly, there was a US program to study the use of nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes. It was called “Plowshares” and one of the detonations, Sedan, caused the most nuclear fallout over the US of any nuclear test ever made.

        Yeah, we wont’ be digging any canals with them any time soon.

        1. Moreover, the Orion project had all kinds of technical problems. And the so-called “political” problem that it faced was the institution of the Partial Test Ban treaty.

          And no, the Orion pusher design is not the fastest, longest range spacecraft ever designed. A matter-antimatter ejection scheme is far better. But, like Orion, it’s never actually been tested.

  9. “It was predicted that India, Indonesia and Japan might follow.”

    Well India did eventually follow. I don’t know about Indonesia, but Japan and South Korea could have nuclear weapons put together in what, a week?

    Is it revelant to consider South Korea and Japan – with a mature nuclear power industry and some of the world’s best engineers – non-nuclear powers? That’s like saying I don’t own a gun – just and upper and lower receiver, gunpowder, cases, and bullets.

    1. Yeah, it ain’t exactly nuclear science.

  10. Nuclear war is like the ever present threat of an asteroid impact. It will happen. I don’t understand what all the hand wringing buys. After all, on a long enough time line the survival rate drops to zero.

  11. Twenty posts and no John or Cytotoxic to assure us that the turrrrrible Moooslims are gonna nuke us (and worse, Israel)?

    1. read about the twelfth Imam BEFORE you post…
      i know it is Monday after a holiday weekend, but sheesh…

      1. I have been TOLD, apparently.

        Because someone brought up the 12th imam bogeyman.

        1. like your post is a rebuttal?

  12. A nuclear Iran would soon learn something previous nuclear powers already know: These weapons are not much use except to deter nuclear attack. What help have they been for the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan?

  13. Nuclear proliferation is always said to be on the verge of suddenly accelerating, and somehow it never does. In 1981, there were five declared nuclear powers — the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France — as well as Israel, which was (and is) undeclared.

    1. South Africa also had nukes in 1981.

  14. It probably is again. But our leaders are not about to let mere history debunk the apocalyptic scenarios. They are committed to a policy based on fear rather than experience.

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