How Donald Trump Could Push Iran and Saudi Arabia to Build Nuclear Weapons

The National Interest

Optimistic and pessimistic arguments about nuclear proliferation were conceptualized decades ago. The best place to find them is in Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz’s The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. Contrarian optimists like Waltz argued that proliferation will continue to happen slowly and in limited cases for good reason, since the bomb isn’t all that useful for conquest or war. Moreover, possession of the bomb by adversaries has reduced the likelihood of war. If proliferation pessimists were right, Waltz argued, many more states would possess the bomb and it would have been used in warfare.

Proliferation pessimists like Sagan counter that we have been fortunate to avoid battlefield use, but good fortune may run out, whether by command decision, breakdowns of command and control, or by accident. If more states acquire a bomb, pessimists argue, others will follow in their footsteps, and more can go wrong with additional bomb seekers. Moreover, the bomb hasn’t induced caution. While conventional warfare between nuclear-armed states has so far been avoided, border clashes haven’t and unconventional warfare has been fostered under the bomb’s shadow, as is most evident by Pakistan’s behavior.

To be sure, domestic U.S. divisions aren’t new—they date back to the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s ratification in 1999 by Senate Republicans, if not before. Subsequently, divisions have grown and are nowhere more evident than over the Iran nuclear deal. Supporters were surprised by how much the Obama administration and its co-negotiators managed to achieve, while opponents worry greatly over what the deal failed to accomplish. Support for the Iran deal has been nearly undetectable among Republicans on Capitol Hill, and Donald Trump seems intent to torpedo it.

Uncertainties about the future of proliferation now hinge on the Iranian and North Korean cases. Long gone are the halcyon years in the 1990s when nuclear-capable states (Argentina, Brazil) gave up their ambitions to become nuclear armed, and nuclear-armed states voluntarily gave up their home built (South Africa) or inherited (Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan) stockpiles. There were diverse factors behind these extraordinary accomplishments; there was also an important common thread: all were accomplished without strong-armed tactics or the use of force. Instead, nonproliferation diplomacy was of paramount importance.

These diplomatic accomplishments coincided with the negotiation of remarkable treaties reducing U.S. and Russian strategic offensive forces. The NPT’s indefinite extension in 1995 reflected these combined achievements—as well as the widely anticipated conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations. The NPT was never in stronger shape when it was extended indefinitely.

The tide began to turn with nuclear testing on the subcontinent in 1998 and the Senate’s rejection of the CTBT the following year. Then came 9/11, along with the George W. Bush administration’s decisions to not wait for deadly threats to gather in foreign lands, to expand NATO to Russia’s borders and to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These decisions and the Kremlin’s reaction to them placed Washington and Moscow on the collision course that is now painfully evident. The NPT couldn’t possibly escape unharmed from these dynamics, since its fate has always been linked with the state of relations between Washington and Moscow, particularly their willingness to reduce nuclear arms.

The Bush administration’s preventive war against Saddam Hussein’s presumed nuclear program was a watershed event in many ways. It signaled the Republican Party’s embrace of a militarized approach to proliferation, mimicking Israel’s policy of not accepting a mutual deterrence relationship in its neighborhood. Israel’s narrow approach—air strikes against nuclear facilities absent ground wars and regime changes—has so far succeeded. Bush’s all-in approach failed disastrously.

The extent of partisan U.S. divisions about how best to deal with “bad actors” was next apparent when the Obama administration opted for the use of force against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Typically threading the needle (yes to air strikes, yes to regime change, no to boots on the ground), Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were excoriated by Republicans on Capitol Hill for the resulting chaos in Libya and the loss of life at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Sharp partisan divides then focused on the Iran deal, where the Obama administration pursued its natural instincts toward diplomacy rather than military instruments to prevent proliferation.

Partisan U.S. divides have trickle-down effects on major diplomatic gatherings like NPT Review Conferences and on the upkeep of the NPT “regime.” For instance, Republicans on Capitol Hill have cut back funding for the organization established in Vienna to monitor nuclear testing pending the CTBT’s entry into force. (In a welcome development, the Trump administration promises not to short change the CTBT Organization.) Another example: supporters of the recently negotiated treaty banning nuclear weapons conspicuously failed to endorse the additional protocol that sets tougher inspection standards by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

At present, both nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” feel they have ample grounds to sue each other for non-support of the NPT. Nuclear-armed states, especially the United States, Russia and China, are recapitalizing and modernizing their nuclear forces. Deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces seem remote because the Kremlin is behaving badly toward its neighbors, the list of Russian treaty violations is growing, and U.S. missile defense deployments are being upgraded and expanded. Nuclear abstainers and abolitionists are investing time and effort in standing up a treaty banning nuclear weapons rather than rallying behind the NPT. Tensions have grown at NPT Review Conferences, and they are likely to be particularly pronounced at the 2020 Review Conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. 

If the Trump administration’s dealings with Iran and North Korea end badly, then they could tip the scales toward proliferation pessimism. Even so, worst cases will take time to evolve and are not foreordained. If Trump walks away from verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities, much depends on how the Iranian leadership—which is far from monolithic on this and other matters—reacts.

Iran’s supreme leaders have said that nuclear weapons are immoral and that they do not covet the bomb—statements that proliferation pessimists find deeply unpersuasive. In this view, when foreign leaders rattle nuclear cages, their statements must be taken at face value; when they question the utility of nuclear weapons, they are practicing the art of deception. If Waltz’s predictions are correct, Iran will proceed deliberately even if Trump walks away from the deal. In doing so, Tehran can drive a wedge between Washington and its negotiating partners without fueling a Saudi Arabian nuclear weapon program. Alternatively, by walking away from the nuclear deal, the Trump administration could facilitate and accelerate a decision by Tehran that it needs a nuclear deterrent to ward off threats from Washington.

The potential negative impacts of trashing the Iran nuclear deal on prospects for negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program have been widely noted. Prospects for these negotiations are generally considered to be dim, in any event. Denuclearization appears to be a distant prospect, at best. However, several possible outcomes capable of limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities could be on offer, but only if the Trump administration is willing to accept less than idealized outcomes and bargain for them. So far, however, the author of The Art of the Deal has demonstrated no aptitude or inclination for one with North Korea.

If these talks end badly—or do not begin—the paramount question for U.S. nonproliferation policy and for the NPT regime will be whether the Trump administration chooses pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s nuclear capability—strikes that can prompt another war on the Korean Peninsula with far-reaching consequences. When Soviet and Chinese nuclear capabilities first became evident, there was loose talk about preventive war and pre-emptive strikes to neutralize those threats. Cooler heads prevailed because it was unlikely that all targets could be identified and struck successfully, leaving the United States and its allies vulnerable to retaliation. In both cases, deterrence was a wiser course than preemption. Because North Korea isn’t in the Soviet Union or China’s weight class, the impulse to carry out pre-emptive strikes hasn’t gone away. Kim Jong-un has accelerated North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests to clarify the penalties of preemption.

U.S. pre-emptive strikes against North Korea could therefore result in the appearance of mushroom clouds in warfare for the first time since 1945. The norm of non-battlefield use is not enshrined in the NPT, but it is absolutely central to the Treaty’s partnership between the nuclear haves and have-nots. If this norm is broken as a result of proactive U.S. counter-proliferation policies—following the ill-conceived war to oust Saddam Hussein based on false public justifications—then the NPT regime would be profoundly weakened. Nuclear-armed states would likely re-evaluate their deterrence requirements, and some might resume testing. States considering their nuclear options are also likely to re-evaluate and accelerate their hedging strategies. The NPT might survive these shocks, but would likely become a hollow instrument.

The Iranian and North Korean cases clarify how much the traditional calculus of proliferation optimists (a rare breed with Waltz’s passing) and pessimists has changed. Proliferation outcomes were previously presumed to result primarily from internal and regional drivers. Now an external driver has changed this calculus—Washington’s erratic behavior due to partisan divides, disinterest among Republican officials in less than ideal diplomatic outcomes, and their embrace of harder-edged instruments to counter proliferation. Covert procurement networks, regional dynamics, and leadership traits still matter greatly when it comes to proliferation outcomes, but Washington’s behavior has become a more pivotal factor.

What does this mean for the future of proliferation? When the former chief defender of the nonproliferation regime doesn’t invest in its upkeep and when it disdains diplomacy in favor of compellent strategies, proliferation could either be deterred or accelerated. In the two decades since the Sagan/Waltz book appeared, pessimists have not won this debate. So far, worst cases have been at best slow moving and have not led to proliferation cascades. Nor have proliferation optimists been proven right, as is evident by the rash of national programs to build nuclear power plants, including in oil-rich states in the Middle East. The jury is still out with respect to the future of proliferation because the path states choose will take time to manifest. In either event—whether states are deterred or accelerate their nuclear plans—hedging strategies are likely to become more pronounced.

The jury has, however, reached a verdict on the state of U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy. The Senate’s rejection of the CTBT was a severe blow to U.S. leadership, which was unaffected by President Obama’s expression of fealty to a world without nuclear weapons. Obama was, after all, limited in what he could accomplish by way of nuclear force reductions and he left the CTBT in limbo. U.S. leadership on nonproliferation will take another severe hit if President Trump walks away from an accord that curtails the Iranian program for a decade or more, thanks to the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with the help of other nuclear-armed states plus the European Union. 

The consequences of a more hard-edged U.S. approach to proliferation by Republican administrations, the severe deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, and gridlock in multilateral negotiations are unmistakably negative. The divide between states possessing the bomb and those calling for abstinence and abolition is growing. The more this divide widens—as reflected in the increased unwillingness of nuclear-armed as well as abstinent states to take steps to strengthen the NPT’s objectives and purposes—the weaker the treaty will become.

Worrisome divisions are reflected in the negotiation and creation of the Ban Treaty by states seeking abolition and by the generalized disinterest among nuclear-armed states to fulfill promises made at previous five-year NPT review conferences. It will take time to clarify what these trends portend for proliferation and whether the current period of deep uncertainty and, in some quarters, dread about the Trump administration’s choices will result in a longer list of bomb seekers. What is clear at this juncture is that the NPT is atrophying, and that partisan U.S. divides over proliferation will result in states adopting more advanced hedging strategies.