Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Are We Against a Nuclear Iran?

By Pat CaseyPublished November 8, 2013

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Why is the notion of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians so unthinkable that the United States would be willing to go to such great lengths to ensure that it never happens? In this piece, Pat discusses the risks and uncertainty involved in a world with a developed nuclear arms program in Iran.
By Patrick Casey, Published 11/8/13



Christopher Hitchens was once quoted as saying "It's always worth establishing First Principle. How am I sure of my own view? How do I know that I know this, except that I've always been taught this and never heard anything else?" I'm reminded of this quote often, but no more so than when I think of public attitudes towards Iran: while Americans are generally of the opinion that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, many would be unable to defend that position if pressed to do so. The fault, however, is not their own. The politicians and so-called "experts" who direct the national conversation on the subject often go into great detail about how a nuclear-armed Iran might be prevented but almost always fail to mention why it should be prevented to begin with—that much is left to be assumed. There is, however, nothing inherently threatening about a country acquiring a nuclear arsenal: it is only context that might make it so, and context is far too nuanced to be considered obvious or self-evident. It is in the spirit of Hitchens, then, that we turn to examine this question: Why is the notion of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians so unthinkable that the United States would be willing to go to such great lengths to ensure that it never happens?

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It is important to begin by noting that not all academics are in agreement on the matter. There are even some scholars who believe that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon might actually bring more stability to the Middle East, not less. Kenneth Waltz, for example, argues that history suggests that deterrence ultimately would play out as the rest of the region followed suit and built other arsenals. This attitude, however, is merely whistling past the graveyard. To claim that deterrence would play out even between Iran and Israel is to assume that the "secure second strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from on country to the other, and experiences managing nuclear arsenals" that existed between the U.S. and the Soviets in the Cold War were not needed to deter a nuclear war between the two, and there is no reason to believe that to be true (Kroenig). Moreover, the historical models of deterrence are based on a two player system where only the United States and the USSR have nuclear capabilities. If Iran were to build a weapon, however, many of its neighbors would be pressured into building their own, rendering the bipolar model irrelevant. Thus, there is no way to predict what would happen in such an event, but all-out nuclear warfare could break out. Uncertainty, then, is the biggest threat posed by a potential Iranian nuclear arsenal. 

There is another risk to consider: fissile material ending up in the hands of some non-governmental terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda. How would an Iranian nuclear weapons program heighten the potential for such an event? Well, it doesn't take much effort or contortion to imagine a situation in which a group could acquire a small amount of enriched uranium from some unfaithful person in the supply chain, especially given that Iran has been known to have ties with various groups as well as actively support and fund Hezbollah. (The chances of this happening would only be compounded as more and more countries in the region start similar programs in response.) The danger posed by nuclear terrorism is well known, and all possible precautions should be taken to avoid it—even if that means intervening in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation.