In the summer of 2012, the international relations theorist Kenneth N. Waltz published an article titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” in which he argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would reestablish a desirable balance of power in the Middle East, by acting as a counterweight to Israel.
Later that year, Waltz also argued that the strategy of combining sanctions with diplomacy was unlikely to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear capacity. “Short of using military force,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in September 2012, “it is difficult to imagine how Iran could be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so.”
Waltz was wrong in two ways. First, by defending nuclear weapons as a source of regional or global stability, he profoundly underestimated the danger that they could fall into the hands of terrorists or be used because of a miscalculation.
Second, Waltz failed to foresee the success of the nuclear negotiations with Iran (or their “failure” from the perspective of those who actually wanted a nuclear-armed Iran). Waltz died in 2013, but if he were alive today, he would undoubtedly point out the loose ends of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany), and the European Union adopted in 2015. Yet he also would have to recognize that the JCPOA goes further than what he and many others had thought possible, demonstrating the power of diplomacy, especially to those who had advocated military means.
The JCPOA was a landmark of multilateralism. Despite that – or, perhaps, because of his disregard for multilateralism in all forms – US President Donald Trump has called it the “stupidest deal of all time,” and predicted that it would “lead to a nuclear holocaust.” Countless analysts, such as Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, have shown these claims to be completely unfounded and hyperbolic in the extreme. But that didn’t stop Trump from refusing in October to “recertify” the JCPOA.
Trump’s move leaves it up to the US Congress to decide whether to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which would amount to a violation of the agreement. Even if Congress decides to do nothing on this front, Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric and other Republican initiatives in Congress have strained the JCPOA and left it vulnerable.
The JCPOA’s collapse would generate significant risks for the Middle East and the world. A newly restarted Iranian nuclear program would add a worrisome dimension to Iran’s strategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia. In fact, the two countries’ cold war already seems to be heating up. Saudi Arabia – whose audacious young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has Trump’s full support – recently accused Iran of an “act of war” after a missile was launched from Yemen toward Riyadh.
At a time when the US is already in a nuclear standoff with North Korea, the last thing it needs is to raise a similar risk in the Middle East. Fortunately, Germany, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the EU have all committed to defending the JCPOA, distancing themselves from the Trump administration’s reluctant stance.
Trump’s foreign policy is adding to a long list of perverse incentives in the area of nuclear proliferation. Consider the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which was launched on the pretext that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. He wasn’t. And when he was brought down, the other two members of US President George W. Bush’s so-called axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, concluded that not having nuclear arms made them vulnerable to American attempts at regime change. This conclusion was further reinforced in 2011, with the US-assisted overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who had abandoned his nuclear program eight years earlier.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-un came to power a few weeks after Qaddafi’s summary execution at the hands of rebel fighters, which undoubtedly influenced his approach to international relations. Rather than making Kim back down, Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” have further convinced the North Korean leader that his survival and that of the Kim dynasty depend on nuclear weapons. Punishingly tight sanctions alone will not change his mind. Kim seems perfectly willing to subject the North Korean people to privations of every kind in order to remain in power.
Of course, there are notable differences between North Korea and Iran. The most obvious is that Iran’s nuclear program did not take off, whereas North Korea – which, unlike Iran, withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty – already has an estimated 60 nuclear warheads, and seems to be making progress toward a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland. In short: an all-out military conflict with North Korea would entail immediate global risks.
Trump may have begun to realize that increasing pressure on North Korea does not preclude sitting down to negotiate with Kim. In fact, combining both methods is the most sensible alternative.
But giving diplomacy a chance will require Trump to abandon his incendiary rhetoric and maximalist positions, and work constructively with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Having recently consolidated his power at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi will probably assume a more proactive role in international conflict resolution, especially in areas that affect China directly. An effective global leader must be able to confront his ally and offer a hand to his adversary when circumstances call for it.
Finding a strategy that credibly contains the North Korean threat is the only way to ensure that South Korea and Japan do not make the regrettable choice of joining the nuclear club. As Waltz observed, nuclear arms have a tendency to spread. But that does not mean we should resign ourselves to proliferation, let alone play down its catastrophic potential. International security depends on preserving diplomatic success stories such as the JCPOA, which are crucial to avoid contagion and to put an end, once and for all, to dangerous spirals of antagonism and polarization.