Nuclear Iran: Why the West must Reconsider its Non-Proliferation Strategy

Simon Leitch, PhD* for Alochonaa

 Dr Simon Leitch contributes to the US-Iran nuclear debate which was launched by Dr. Mark N Kartz, a Professor at the George Mason University, USA. Dr Kartz discusses the broader implications of Washington-Tehran nuclear discussions on the international community. His article can be read here.

Nuclear Iran: Why the West must Reconsider its Non-Proliferation Strategy

 If you are new to the Iranian nuclear crisis the basics are easy to understand.  The Iranian nuclear program has been a thorn in the side of many Western, and Middle Eastern policymakers for years – and for good reason.  Should Iran ever attain nuclear weapons, its leverage in international politics will increase dramatically due to the potential damage it could inflict on others.  With nuclear weapons in hand, a state can become more reckless, more prone to provocations, and conventional military manoeuvres because retaliation and escalation becomes difficult – North Korea’s ability to escape punishment for its many provocations from far greater powers (like South Korea and Japan) are examples that come to mind.  Even a peaceful nuclear program can be of concern due to the theft, or provision of nuclear material to terrorists, whilst an advanced but peaceful nuclear program can easily advance into a weapons program, should political circumstances change.

Given all this, American-led efforts to prevent Iranian nuclearization are understandable.  With U.S. allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, crying out for American assistance in curbing Iranian power, and with American forces in Iraq serving as fodder for Iranian-back militias, the Bush and Obama administrations were never going to see Iranian nuclearization in a favorable light.  So it was that we have seen a decade of antagonism, economic sanctions and occasional war threats pointed to Iran.

Despite a decade of political changes, including a rotation of political leaders in Iran and the USA, the establishment of multilateral negotiation forums, sanctions and threats of force it seems Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapons capability.  Recently the much heralded Iran-U.S. negotiations have resulted in at least one striking Iranian commitment – Iranian officials claim they will not dismantle their nuclear program or even scale it back.  Inspection of Iranian facilities might be possible but forwards, not backwards, is the only way for Iranian nuclear capabilities.  How have things gone so very wrong for American strategy in the region?

Let’s begin with a disclaimer – the Iran nuclear issue is complicated.  As in many cases of diplomatic bargaining there are many separate issues tugging at the policy process.  Issues such as terrorism, Iranian and American domestic politics, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the Syrian Civil War, the preferences of allies (like Saudi Arabia, Israel and the EU states), and the actions of rivals (like Russia and China) have made negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program problematic from the start, and more difficult over time.  If the USA fails to get its way on the Iranian nuclear program it won’t be a surprise because the odds have been stacked against American efforts from the start.  Neither Bush in the post-2003 Iraq War period nor Obama since his inauguration day have been able to direct their respective Iran policies from a favorable position of strength (domestically or internationally).

It should not be surprising that successive U.S. presidents appear to have failed to denuclearize Iran with coercive diplomacy.  Coercive diplomacy does not take place in a vacuum, and American efforts to isolate Iran and force it away from developing a nuclear weapons capability were overly-ambitious from the start.  Complicating this has been the fact that military action against Iran has probably never been a realistic option for American forces.  With American forces spread through Iraq, the Gulf and Afghanistan for the last decade the USA could not (and still can’t) militarily target Iran without incurring the kind of risks that war-weary Americans don’t want to pay.  Now U.S. efforts look increasingly like the delusions of a great power which cannot come to terms with the fact it is diplomatically overextended, war-weary and lacking in moral or political authority in the region.  How far the Iranian nuclear program progresses now is more up to Iranians than Americans, and continued unsuccessful attempts to seek Iranian denuclearization are distracting and damaging to American credibility and interests.

Given this state of affairs the West should reconsider fundamentals of its non-proliferation strategy.  America and its allies, in Europe and in the Middle East, must learn to live with the idea that some states will develop a nuclear capability.  States have been doing so for a long time and will probably continue to do so.  Here I will not argue that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran will be good for the region because it will have a stabilizing effect, or even that Iran will move to a nuclear weapons capability, although plenty of scholars do argue these points.  What I will argue is that, properly applied, the principles of nuclear deterrence still work, and Iran can be deterred from first use of nuclear weapons in any plausible future scenario and, yes, this includes handing nuclear weapons to terrorists.  Rather than trying to create the ‘ideal’ Iran, foreigners need to accept Iran will actually exist in the future – the future Iran may have advanced nuclear capabilities, and so be it.

This doesn’t mean the West should abandon the principles of non-proliferation in international relations more generally.  It doesn’t mean we have to like it when states like Pakistan, North Korea or Iran gain nuclear capabilities.  Nuclear non-proliferation norms can still be reinforced by symbolic sanctions against nuclear technology, restrictions on the movements of atomic scientists, great power example and anti-nuclear diplomatic rhetoric.  Many states will still be deterred from gaining nuclear weapons in the future due to the strength of non-proliferation norms, the inconvenience of limited sanctions or the threat of force (military options can still work in the right place and time).  However, the Western belief that foreign nuclear programs can and should always be stopped through coercive diplomacy is a myth, and a dangerous one at that.  Sometimes, just sometimes, nuclearization cannot be prevented and continuing to try is simply embarrassing for all involved.

By refusing to accept the limits of American coercive power over Iranian decisions, much of the antagonism between Iran and the USA is completely pointless and counter-productive.  Rather than cultivating an understanding with Iran about the mutual dangers of nuclear weapons, Western states have simply come off as incompetent bullies who are weak in the face of resolute resistance.  The situation which the USA negotiators now face is unenviable, and any accommodation with Iran will carry a domestic political cost for President Obama.  Still, something can and should be salvaged from this wreckage.

First, the Iranians have mentioned that they are open to the idea of inspections of their facilities.  For several years this has probably been the only realistic outcome, and as dissatisfying it is for negotiators they should jump at the chance to formalize and normalize inspection processes.  Cooperation, trust and acceptance can start from these beginnings.  Second, the more moderate voices in Iran can be reinforced by showing that America is not antagonistic to Iran on principle, and that the two can coexist.  Iran and the USA will still have clashes or interest.  They will have disagreements about Syria, terrorism, Israel and Iraq and pursue various adversarial strategies as a result.  But they can come to an agreement about nuclear issues, freedom of the passage in the Gulf and normalizing trade and diplomatic relations over time.

The USA, and the West more broadly, must choose its battles more carefully, but also accept when one is lost.  Iran’s nuclear program is a battle lost and there is no sense throwing away more time, money, reputation and diplomatic assets after a lost battle, particularly one that has been lost for a long time.

*Dr. Leitch is an expert on International Relations theories. He examined Chinese Soft Power in his Doctoral Thesis. He writes from Brisbane. This is author’s personal view . It is neither reflective of his employer’s view nor Alochonaa’s view. He can be reached at

 ** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: America, IR, Iran, Nuclear

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