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9.5 The Nuclear Question, Revisited

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn:

  1. How the nuclear question has changed but remains a feature of international relations.
  2. The challenges of applying economic sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy.

Despite all that has changed in the last three decades, nuclear weapons issues persist into the 21st century. The nations that admittedly have nuclear weapons—the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France—have signed a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in hopes that the weapons will not be spread elsewhere. Nonetheless, Israel has them and Iran is trying to develop them; North Korea has them although it lacks a consistent delivery system. India has them and so does its arch-rival Pakistan. And still, since their sole usage in World War II, nobody has used them in war.

In fact, weapons of mass destruction have never been used except against people who don’t have them. Poison gas was used by both sides in the First World War. At the time it was the most horrible weapon ever devised. The Italians under Mussolini used them against Ethiopia when they conquered that country in 1935–36. So there was great fear that World War II would see renewed use of these weapons. And yet neither side did. In fact, at one point U.S. forces inadvertently fired gas-laden artillery shells at some Italian troops. They immediately contact the Italians and apologized, and there was no reprisal. They were not used again until Saddam Hussein used them against rebel Shiites and separatist Kurds who attempted to overthrow him following the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons has declined from 65,000 in 1985 to under 25,000 at present.

Still, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran causes no small concern in the west. The Iranians claim their nuclear program is for energy generation only, although western analysts dispute this claim. The quixotic government of Iran, which combines democratic elements with an Islamic theocracy, makes no secret of its desire to wipe Israel off the map. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said, among other things, that Iran’s enemies are seeking to create drought in the country by destroying rain clouds before they reach Iran. He also has claimed that the Holocaust and the deaths of six million Jews never happened. Moreover, Iranian support for terrorist groups makes western leaders fear that they will give them a bomb, with resulting destruction that would make 9–11 seem trivial by comparison.

The realist perspective on this problem, which some conservative American and pro-Israeli politicians have advocated, would be to attack Iran and try to destroy its nuclear program. Allowing Iran to develop nuclear capabilities would not only allow it to attack Israel, a U.S. ally, but also to dominate its neighboring states and threaten the world’s supply of oil. An Iran-Israel nuclear war would threaten to grow into a much broader conflict, with dire consequences for everyone, including the U.S.

The liberal approach would be necessarily different. The fact that Iran is a big country and that the nuclear program is spread all over it doesn’t seem to deter the realist line of thinking, even as U.S. military leaders suggest we are very unlikely to take out all of their nuclear development sites. President Ronald Reagan once spoke of what he called “constructive engagement,” by which we would work with another state to try to coax them along to where we want them. But while the Reagan administration advocated this approach with allies, such as South Africa, then non-communist but still driven by the racist policy of apartheid, the president and his advisers never seemed to try this with anyone they really disagreed with.

The advantage of constructive engagement—tempting and cajoling the other side into doing what you want them to do, as opposed to just trying to force them—is that it maintains the moral high ground for the U.S., and doesn’t antagonize relations with most other Muslim states. So the liberal approach would be to talk first and shoot last, and hope it never comes to that.

President Barack Obama, in contrast to George W. Bush, tried this approach with Iran, and it’s difficult to say what it achieved. Like North Korea, Iran’s government seems intransigent when it comes to negotiations. And like North Korea, they may be using the threat of attack by western powers as a way of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of a restive populace, including a lot of young people who have a hunger for western goods and culture and who don’t march around shouting “Death to America!” Given that the Iranian regime’s real goal may be something other than or at least in addition to nuclear weapons, they may see it in their interests to continue the standoff with the U.S. and other western powers for the foreseeable future.

Part of the response of the west to Iran has been economic sanctionsRestrictions on trade, often on military goods and other kinds of technology, by one more nations to force another nation to change its policies., by which states agree to suspend or limit trade in some or all goods with the targeted state. Sanctions are difficult to make work. First, they have to affect the leadership of the country. So Iranian voters would have to vote out the ruling factions in government, who then would change course for Iran’s nuclear program. Given that religious authorities in Iran control who makes the ballot, this seems unlikely. For the most part, sanctions tend to hurt ordinary people more than they hurt governments. Sanctions also need to target third-party states, who may not be part of the sanctions effort and would prefer to continue trading with the target state. So while the U.S. the EU and a host of other nations have halted trade with Iran in everything from military hardware to oil equipment, Iran continues to trade with China. The sanctions on oil technology appear to be having some impact on the Iran’s economy, but the Iranian government continues to drag its feet over its nuclear program. Multiple U.N. resolutions also have called upon Iran to give up the program, with little effect.

Does this mean this relatively liberal approach to Iran should be abandoned for military action? Not necessarily. Military action comes with its own costs, and wouldn’t necessarily end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The combination of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and offers of economic aid may yet do the trick.

Contrast this with the approach to North Korea. One of the world’s last communist states, it has nuclear weapons and an economy that is so bad its citizens face the constant threat of malnutrition and starvation. It has test-fired missiles over Japan, and still has occasional small-scale military clashes with South Korea. Three generations of rule by the Kim family have been maintained by rigorous control of public information, painting a picture that whichever Kim is in power is the only thing that stands between the people and annihilation by foreign powers (the United States). This further complicates negotiations with the north because pressure from the outside, and North Korea’s resistance, helps cement the state’s legitimacy at home. Consequently, the reason for the north to have nuclear weapons is precisely to invite the attention of foreign powers. Nonetheless, despite agreement among the Russians, Chinese, Americans, South Koreans and Japanese that the north should end its nuclear program, no one is threatening military action. The South Korean government favors reunification with the north, but is willing to wait for it to happen. Perhaps they think that North Korea’s economy is so bad that the state will eventually collapse from within.

Key Takeaways

  • The nature of nuclear weapons issues has changed since the end of the Cold War.
  • Economic sanctions face certain challenges to be effective, but can have an impact on targeted nations if there is widespread compliance with the sanctions.


  1. What different approaches could be used in dealing with Iran or with North Korea? Which approach would you favor and why?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.