Today we’re revisiting the Iran: No Big Deal argument. First up, my column at WPR makes the case for thinking about Iran in terms of the behavior of other nuclear powers:
The problem with nukes is that there are strong material and normative pressures against their use, not least because states that use nukes risk incurring nuclear retaliation. Part of the appeal of nuclear weapons is their bluntness, but for foreign policy objectives requiring a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, they are useless. As a result, states with nuclear neighbors quickly find that they can engage in all manner of harassment and escalation without risking nuclear retaliation. The weapons themselves are often more expensive than the foreign policy objectives that they would be used to attain. Moreover, normative pressures do matter. Even “outlaw” nations recognize that the world views the use of nuclear — not to mention chemical or biological — weapons differently than other expressions of force. And almost without exception, even outlaw nations require the goodwill of at least some segments of the international community.
Given all this, it is not at all surprising that many countries eschew nuclear programs, even when they could easily attain nuclear status. Setting aside the legal problems, nuclear programs tend to be expensive, and they provide relatively little in terms of foreign policy return on investment. Brazil, for example, does not need nuclear weapons to exercise influence in Latin America or deter its rivals. Turkey, like Germany, Japan and South Korea, decided a long time ago that the nuclear “problem” could be solved most efficiently through alignment with an existing nuclear power.
Why do policymakers, analysts and journalists so consistently overrate the importance of nuclear weapons? The answer is that everyone has a strong incentive to lie about their importance. The Iranians will lie to the world about the extent of their program and to their people about the fruits of going nuclear. The various U.S. client states in the region will lie to Washington about how terrified they are of a nuclear Iran, warning of the need for “strategic re-evaluation,” while also using the Iranian menace as an excuse for brutality against their own populations. Nonproliferation advocates will lie about the terrors of unrestrained proliferation because they do not want anyone to shift focus to the manageability of a post-nuclear Iran. The United States will lie to everyone in order to reassure its clients and maintain the cohesion of the anti-Iran block.
Over at Yale Journal, Michael Cohen and Spencer Ackerman both responded to my op-ed on the Middle Eastern regional balance of power. Cohen takes a historical track, arguing that nuclear weapons have been important in past crises, while Ackerman points out that many regional actors are quite insistent about the dangers of Iranian nukes. Both are good; check them out. I’ll have a response later that discusses how Cohen gets the history wrong and Ackerman, for lack of a better phrase, gets the ontology wrong.