Nuclear Phobia

Judging by the comments of most political figures, scholars and media pundits, regardless of political orientation, the future of nuclear proliferation is bleak.

This time, the sky is surely falling. At the very least, the world is at a “tipping point” in the direction of a nuclear armed crowd with far more countries actively pursuing and acquiring nuclear weapons. On this point, Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ban Ki-moon and John McCain all agree.

This proliferation pessimism often finds expression in metaphors about nuclear dominoes, chains, cascades and waves. In most cases the gloomy scenario anticipates a reactive process in which Iran’s “going nuclear” leads to decisions by other states in the region and possibly elsewhere to follow suit in quick succession.

Such prognoses are often cited in support of arguments for urgent action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. And yet, as was the case with the “domino theory” of the spread of Communism, little evidence is marshaled to support assertions about reactive proliferation.

A review of declassified U.S. national intelligence estimates (NIEs), as well as scholarly prognoses, shows that nuclear alarmism has been a feature of U.S. threat assessments throughout most of the nuclear age.

The catalysts for projections of rapid proliferation and the characteristics of “threshold states” have changed over time, but past forecasts have routinely overestimated the pace of proliferation.

The most famous dire prognosis was President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 nightmare of a future world of 15, 20 or 25 nuclear powers. Although there has been little movement in that direction, the assumption persists that the birth of a new nuclear-armed state will beget many others.

Waves of proliferation were widely anticipated following India’s “peaceful” nuclear explosion in 1974; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998; and, most recently, North Korea’s defection from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. While these events produced no obvious diffusion effect, policy makers have identified the Middle East as the site of the next proliferation epidemic.

Do the facts on the ground support this prognosis? Our multiyear study of the dynamics of nuclear proliferation for a dozen “usual suspects” suggests otherwise. It indicates that the further spread of nuclear weapons is neither imminent nor likely to involve a “chain reaction.”

Although surprising in terms of its challenge to conventional wisdom about a proliferation pandemic, our conclusion is consistent with the historically slow pace of proliferation and the exceptional circumstances that must pertain for states to abandon nuclear restraint.

It also highlights the important role played by individual leaders and domestic political coalitions for whom pursuit of nuclear weapons poses major political, economic and security costs.

Egypt — the domino most often identified as likely to fall in the wake of an overt Iranian nuclear weapons program — is a case in point. As James Walsh demonstrates in his case study for our project, Egypt’s motivations to acquire nuclear weapons were more intense in past decades than they are today or are likely to be in the near future, while disincentives are as severe if not more so than in the past.

Why would Cairo decide to emulate an Iranian nuclear posture when it has so long tolerated a far more potent Israeli nuclear weapons capability? Why would it risk severe damage to its relations with the United States, not to mention the loss of huge amounts of economic and military aid, for the very uncertain benefits of an expensive weapons program?

One should also be skeptical that Turkey, another prospective link in an Iran-instigated chain reaction, would abandon its quest for membership in the European Union and jeopardize its NATO security guarantees to emulate Iran. And what about Saudi Arabia, another Middle Eastern kingpin? What problem, internal or otherwise, would the kingdom solve with nuclear weapons?

To suggest that the proverbial proliferation sky is not yet falling is not to dismiss the risk of weapons spread. Indeed, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, or military action against Iran, could well shift the balance of incentives and disincentives in the proliferation calculus for a number of states.

If history is any guide, however, these factors will be country-specific, and even if one nation should decide to disavow its nonproliferation commitments, there is little reason to expect an epidemic.

William Potter, professor of nonproliferation studies and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, an adjunct professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. They are the editors of Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century.