The United States and Iran are in the midst of difficult negotiations about the possible acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these negotiations will result in an agreed-upon formula seems relatively low, since there are powerful forces in both countries that are strongly opposed to an accord, and are working very hard to sabotage any agreement.
The standard view in the United States and western Europe is that the issue is how to keep a presumably untrustworthy country, Iran, from acquiring weapons with which Iran might impose itself on Israel and on the Arab world generally. However, in reality this is not the issue at all. Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon, if she acquired one, than any of the ten other states that already have such weapons. And Iran's capacity to safeguard weapons against theft or sabotage is probably higher than most countries.
The real issue is quite different. The attempt to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power is like keeping a finger in the dyke. If one removes the finger, there will be a flood. The fear is that if we remove the finger, the world might soon thereafter have not ten such powers but twenty or thirty. To see this clearly, one has to review the history of nuclear weapons.
The story starts in the Second World War, during which the United States and Germany were in acute competition to develop an atomic bomb to use against the other. At the moment Germany surrendered, neither had succeeded, but the United States was much further advanced. At that point, two things happened. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at the Potsdam meeting that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the surrender of Germany, that is, on August 8. And the United States tested its first nuclear explosion on July 16, after the end of the war with Germany.
On August 6 (two days before the Soviet Union had promised to enter the war against Japan), the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Soviet Union carried out its promise on August 8. To demonstrate that this bombing was not a one-time possibility, the United States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9.
Why were the bombs dropped? The official argument was that these bombings shortened the war considerably. And it may have done so. There is no way of knowing. But it is also reasonable to assume that the bombings were a message to the Soviet Union about U.S. power. The curious timing lends credence to this assumption.
What happened next? Because of wartime commitments, the United States shared some technical knowledge with Great Britain immediately. There then followed an attempt to secure an international treaty that would ban atomic weapons worldwide. This attempt failed. In 1949, the Soviet Union launched its own explosion, and became the second nuclear power. In 1952, Great Britain also exploded a weapon, and became the third.
This old trio of "Big Three" powers sought to have the list end there. But France was determined to maintain its claim to being a major power and exploded a weapon in 1960. France was joined in 1964 by China. After the People’s Republic of China obtained China’s seat in 1971, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council all had nuclear weapons.
Once again, those who had the weapons sought to limit the list to themselves. There were clearly another ten to twenty countries that had programs underway and would in time be able to join the nuclear club. The five nuclear powers promoted an accord that received the name of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (usually abbreviated as NPT). The treaty offered an exchange. The signatories would renounce all intent to develop nuclear weapons in return for which the five nuclear powers promised two things: an effort on their part to reduce the quantity of such weapons in their possession and material assistance to non-nuclear powers to obtain what is necessary for the so-called peaceful use of nuclear power.
At one level, the treaty was quite successful. Almost all countries signed the treaty and almost all of those that had launched programs dismantled them. On the other hand, there turned out to be two things that limited the usefulness of the NPT. First of all, there was not much that could be done about countries that refused to sign the treaty, or having once signed it then renounced it. There were several countries that refused to sign and then later exploded bombs: India in 1974, Israel probably in 1979, Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2008. In addition, Israel shared its knowledge with its partner, South Africa. And Pakistan began to sell knowledge and weapons to some other countries.
The second negative outcome was that it was technically extremely difficult to make sure that the knowledge for so-called peaceful uses could not be transferred (and rather rapidly) into making nuclear weapons. The key technical issues were the utility of enriched uranium and plutonium for building weapons and what was called "dual use technology." The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in 1957 initially to spread the capability of countries to develop peaceful uses. But then it began to be involved in a somewhat contradictory role, establishing administrative safeguards against misuse of the knowledge. To enhance its ability, in 1993 an "additional protocol" giving the IAEA much increased power to oversee misuse was adopted, but at least fifty countries refused to sign it. The additional protocol only applies to countries that have signed it.
The decline of U.S. power has reopened all the issues. It seems clear that the United States is against proliferation but is also no longer able credibly to threaten the use of military power to stop proliferation. This has made a number of countries that had renounced nuclear weapons either because they relied on U.S. military back-up in conflicts or because they feared U.S. intervention in their internal politics ready to reconsider their renunciation of nuclear weapons. The recent statements by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe point clearly in this direction. And of course there is likely to be local contagion. If Japan moves in that direction, so will South Korea, Australia, and possibly even Taiwan. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are reflecting on this possibility, as are Iraq and Turkey. And Brazil and Argentina may not be too far behind. Even in Europe, Sweden, Norway, and Spain may well launch programs, and possibly the Netherlands. And the Soviet Union's former nuclear zones - Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan - have the knowledge to restart.
So, if there is no accord between the United States and Iran, the finger will be pulled out of the dyke. This is what is at stake in the difficult negotiations.