As the Trump administration begins a maximum-pressure campaign to implement the “toughest sanctions ever” on Iran, Washington is coming to grips with an age-old problem that won’t go away any time soon, and surely will get worse over time: nuclear proliferation.
Despite his sometimes-over-the-top rhetoric, this is a problem President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE seems eager to tackle. Since the days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has cited nuclear proliferation as one of his top national security concerns. He is wise to worry.
Since the United States detonated atomic bombs in the closing days of World War II, leaders in Washington understood such knowhow and expertise would spread to America’s allies and enemies. If such weapons were to get into the wrong hands, millions of lives could be lost. So, from the days of FDR to now President Trump, America has sought to develop policies that ensure nuclear expertise can’t be developed easily or sold to parties that could threaten U.S. interests.
In fact, America’s sanctions against Iran are part of a long line of attempted strategies to limit membership into the nuclear club. Unfortunately, America’s track record in dealing with the issues has been mixed at best. Most of the America’s top strategic foes, including Russia and China, have developed nuclear weapons over the past several decades despite Washington’s best efforts. Even America’s allies have tried to jump on the nuclear bandwagon. Washington has been supportive of some allies in their nuclear quest, such as Great Britain, but America also has caught allies such as South Korea and Taiwan trying to build nuclear weapons against its wishes.
Such a problem may be one that is not easily solvable — if it is at all. The fundamental challenge that needs to be resolved is how to halt the natural spread of technology over time, something that occurs at lightning speed thanks to the internet age. Clearly, nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are decades-old, and the basic science of both weapons is well known. The technology, materials and expertise needed to develop a crude atomic weapon has been perfected since the early 1940s. Long-range missile technology dates to the 1950s.
Such weaponry, to put it bluntly, is old and no longer the privy of the richest, most technologically advanced nations to build. And with nuclear capability, you don’t even need the most advanced nuclear warheads or missiles; you can deter even the most capable of superpowers.
Even nations that are considered third world have a shot at developing such weapons. Perhaps the best example is North Korea, with an economy the size of Vermont. The North can’t even feed its population without international aid, but has built as many as 65 nuclear weapons and missiles that, at least in theory, can hit the U.S. homeland. After years of tough international sanctions, the Kim regime has built a sophisticated atomic arsenal despite Washington’s best efforts and even sold its missiles and nuclear knowhow around the world, including to Iran and even Syria.
Iran could follow the North Korean example. Despite denials that they have no interest in obtaining nuclear weapons, Tehran sought such an ability in the past and has a domestic nuclear industry as well as a growing ability to develop advanced missiles that can strike Israel and parts of Europe. Through sanctions, Washington’s goal, essentially, is to damage the Iranian economy to such an extent that it will give up any nuclear aspirations and missile capability.
But herein lies the problem. Iran is a student of history and understands that any nation with which America has gone to war, or imposed regime-change upon in the past two or more decades, lacked nuclear weapons. Seeing North Korea as an example, Iran may choose to suffer the effects of sanctions, knowing that if it can achieve nuclear capability, America never would attack. In fact, it could hope in time to outlast American sanctions, working to weaken their impact while partnering with U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China to negate their impact.
Of course, such an effort could push America to double down and impose even tougher sanctions, or even contemplate military action — especially if Iran were close to attaining a working nuclear weapon.
Considering the stakes, and the fact that nuclear and missile technology surely will become easier to develop and deploy, American policymakers should consider the costs and benefits of trying to contain such knowledge. No one wants America’s enemies or a terrorist cell to acquire nuclear weapons but, at the same time, there must be at least some debate about how far Washington is willing to go to stop proliferation, what the risks are, and the limits of what we hope to accomplish.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.