The campaign to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms brings to mind a doctor who focuses on the symptoms while overlooking the disease. If Tehran is indeed building the bomb, it quest is a particular manifestation of a larger problem: nuclear proliferation.
Though dreaded for their capacity to kill millions in minutes, nuclear weapons also confer power and prestige. The most powerful states -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France -- all have them; and none has shown a scintilla of enthusiasm for parting with them, though all are eager to stop others from going nuclear. These same five are the Security Council's permanent members. While nuclear weapons weren't their ticket into this inner sanctum (except for the US none had the bomb when the U.N. opened shop), each of the Big Five does have them, and that fosters the impression that part of attaining top-dog status involves acquiring nuclear powers. Perceptions matter -- and sometimes trump facts.
Incidentally, the record does show that nuclear weapons help ease states into the great power circle. China went nuclear in 1964, and that certainly burnished its credentials as a force to be reckoned with. Seven years later, having been blocked by the U.S. for two decades, it joined the Security Council, dislodging Taiwan. Similarly, it's hard to separate the standing of Britain and France from their possession of nuclear weapons, which is why both retain them, even though neither seriously faces a nuclear threat. While part of Charles de Gaulle's logic for a French nuclear force was that US wouldn't put Washington, D.C., at risk to save Paris, the force de frappe was also about gloire. The lesson? Once a weapon attains such allure, some countries that don't have it will surely seek it, just as Britain, France, and China did, and other states have since.
Then there's American non-proliferation policy, which subverts its declared objective for lack of consistency. In practice, it amounts to this: countries we like can have nuclear weapons, and we may even eventually give them technical help. And even if we didn't initially want some to have them, we'll come around soon enough. Britain benefited from American technology after it built the bomb in 1952. So, later, did France. We've never considered Israel's nuclear force a problem. We didn't want China to get the bomb but soon got used to it once it did. By 1971 Washington was cultivating the Chinese to counter the Soviet Union. Mao's communism (remember the "Red Menace" days?) and calls for global revolution didn't seem to matter.
India and Pakistan faced sanctions when they went nuclear in May 1998, but once we needed their cooperation, especially Pakistan's, after 9/11 things changed. The U.S. resumed economic and military aid to Pakistan and has delivered or approved more than $20 billion worth since 2001, the bulk of it military. President George W. Bush initiated a strategic alignment with India and gained Congressional approval for a U.S.-Indian agreement envisaging the sale of American fuel and technology for India's non-military reactors. When he visited India in 2010, President Obama agreed to sell it $5 billion in arms, and New Delhi later announced plans to buy $100 billion worth over the next decade.
Why wouldn't states with nuclear ambitions look at this history and conclude that American non-proliferation policy is cynical and that while they will encounter a hullabaloo (condemnation, sanctions, and such) for a few years once they build nuclear weapons, Washington will eventually adjust to reality?
If the United States is serious about ending nuclear proliferation it should join with Russia and take the initial steps toward a nuclear-free world. They have a special responsibility. Despite the substantial reductions (about two-thirds) in their strategic nuclear arsenals between the signing of START I in 1991 and New START in 2010, the U.S. still retains 1,790 operational strategic warheads and Russia 1,566--a much bigger stash than needed for an effective deterrent. Even after they make the additional cuts required to fully implement New START by 2018, each will have 1,550 deployed warheads. Washington and Moscow should move in stages toward a minimum deterrent of several hundred warheads each. That number has served the other major nuclear weapons states pretty well: China, Britain, and France have between 225 and 300 strategic nuclear weapons apiece.
If Washington and Moscow reduce to this range, the big down payment will lend credibility to their calls for a nuclear-free world. They should use the momentum to engage the other nuclear powers in negotiations on phased reductions aimed at a global zero. There will be plenty of political obstacles, and technical problems, such as verification, will also prove difficult. It will take years of tough negotiations to overcome such obstacles, not least because non-strategic nuclear weapons will also have to be eliminated. But the effort is worth it: the past tells that otherwise we will have a world with even more nuclear powers.
The idea of banning the bomb was long confined to the left and dismissed as wooly-headed, but it has since been embraced by Republican stalwarts, among them Ronald Regan, Henry Kissinger, and George Schultz. So there's a bipartisan foundation on which to build. What's missing is leadership and political will.