To Stem the Tide: Nuclear History, American Interests, and the Iran Deal


The current debate in Washington over the Iran nuclear deal is both polarizing and highly politicized, making it difficult to rationally discuss the most important question — how does the agreement fit into the long-term grand strategic interests of the United States? To better explore this issue, the deal must be removed from the day-to-day grind of politics and viewed in broader historical terms.

Critics of the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran focus on two alleged flaws. First, they argue the Obama administration allowed Iran to get off too easy. For example, under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran can continue enriching uranium, albeit in a far more limited manner. And while verification measures are stringent, they are not foolproof, a concern given Iran’s past record of violating its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. Second, the sanctions relief provided under the deal will free up billions of dollars for Iran. This windfall could better enable the regime to pursue an ideological and geopolitical agenda in the Middle East and beyond that is deeply at odds with the interests of the United States and its allies.

These critiques overlook two often forgotten but important realities of nuclear history. First, preventing independent, sovereign states from acquiring their own nuclear weapons is extraordinarily hard, and is not now, nor has it ever been, an obvious or easy mission. Second, unlike other aspects of its grand strategy, the U.S. effort to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons focuses narrowly on a technological capability, not a particular regime or its goals in the world. In other words, the deal emerges from a long-held U.S. mission to prevent any state from acquiring the bomb, allies and liberal democracies as well as rogue states, regardless of their other geopolitical or ideological ambitions.

Why are long-standing U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons — including to Iran — both unusual and so difficult?

Historically, states do anything in their power to protect themselves in a world filled with threats and adversaries. No weapon ever invented provides a nation with more security than the nuclear bomb. The power of nuclear deterrence — the ability of a country to threaten catastrophic damage upon an enemy — practically guarantees a nuclear state its independence and sovereignty. It is only natural that countries make great efforts to acquire these weapons, and that attempts to stop this process would be seen as prohibitively difficult, if not pointless. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once compared nuclear nonproliferation to “sitting on the beach and waiting for the rising tide to stop.”

Nor have past efforts to limit the spread of powerful military technologies succeeded. From gunpowder to the Gatling gun to battleships, nations eagerly acquired the most powerful and effective weapons, overcoming the efforts of others to stop them. Before the nuclear age, treaties to control and limit arms rarely worked for long. Nuclear technology and knowhow is no longer exotic; today, dozens of states possess the knowledge to build their own bomb. Unimpeded, many countries possess both powerful motivations and the necessary capabilities to go nuclear. How could any state believe it could halt or even slow this process?

Furthermore, few great powers in history were as unlikely as the United States to upend these powerful historical forces and commit to the enormous, sustained costs needed to “stem the tide” of nuclear acquisition. Protected by two oceans and facing no military threat on its borders, the United States eschewed peacetime alliances and large standing militaries in the century and a half after its founding. Its pre-nuclear age antipathy to international institutions, an independent and powerful military, and a strong executive branch made the United States poorly suited to implement the expansive strategies needed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

The United States, as we now know, took an unexpected and more difficult path. Shaped by what I’ve labeled the U.S. strategies of inhibition in a new article in International Security, American decision-makers across different administrations and shifting international circumstances linked tools rarely thought of as related — from treaties and norms to security guarantees and conventional arms sales to export controls, sanctions, and the threat of force — to prevent other states, regardless of their political affiliation or orientation, from developing or acquiring independent nuclear forces.

Over time, the United States transformed its grand strategy, pursuing treaties, threatening to coerce nascent nuclear powers, and offering security guarantees and peacetime alliances around the world to those who remained non-nuclear. These promises to protect were backed by unprecedented, forward-deployed military power. The strategy of containment and the geopolitical and ideological threat posed by the Soviet Union was a primary driver of this shift, obviously. It is important to note, however, that these alliances and security guarantees often expanded and deepened after the Cold War ended and containment’s target, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist. American policymakers also continued to balance the obvious hypocrisy of advancing norms and treaties to limit the appeal of nuclear weapons while planning to spend a fortune improving sophisticated, flexible, and highly accurate nuclear weapons systems that were already far more powerful than those possessed by its nearest competitors.

Several things are surprising about the history of U.S. strategies of inhibition that provide a better framework for assessing the Iran nuclear deal.

First, while so-called “rogue” regimes get most of the attention, it is often forgotten that the U.S. strategies of inhibition are often oriented as much towards friends as foes. Close Cold War allies like West Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan were threatened with pariah status or worse if they went nuclear, but rewarded with protection if they did not. Even the closest U.S. ally, Great Britain, was encouraged to give up its nuclear weapons or subsume them under U.S. control. Nor did the United States cease its efforts when inhibition failed, as the cases of Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa reveal. Indeed, the United States worked vigorously behind the scenes to mitigate the proliferation consequences of each failure.

Second, the United States cooperated with its hated Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, to inhibit nuclear proliferation, even when this meant working against the atomic ambitions of its own allies. The superpower rivals worked together to create the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global watchdog on nuclear nonproliferation. They shared intelligence on nascent nuclear powers, and crafted and implemented the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and 1968 NPT to prevent new states from going nuclear. The United States even asked the Soviet Union to join it in military strikes against China’s nascent nuclear weapons program.

Third, the primary driver of the strategies of inhibition was its desire to maintain its freedom to act as it pleased around the world. Of course it is true that policymakers worried that nuclear weapons could be used, either on purpose or by accident, against the United States. The overwhelming logic of nuclear deterrence, however, means that it would be tantamount to suicide for the state or terrorist that tried. Instead, as the most powerful nation on the planet, with commanding conventional military, economic, and soft power advantages over any potential rival, the United States abhors the power of nuclear deterrence to limit its own ambitions in the world. Nuclear weapons are the great equalizer, allowing a sixth-rate state like North Korea to affect American policy.

How should this history better enable us to assess the strengths or weaknesses of the Iran nuclear deal? Two points are critical.

First, Iran’s ideology, geopolitical goals, or regime type is largely beside the point when it comes to the inhibition mission. Whether it is the ayatollah’s Iran or more benign states like Sweden, Taiwan, or South Korea, the United States has demonstrated that it has and will continue to go to great lengths to prevent its freedom of action from being constrained by the proliferation of this powerful technology. Similar to the past, future inhibition challenges are as likely to come from ostensible allies like Japan as so-called rogue states.

This is highlighted in the willingness of the United States to cooperate with bitter enemies — be it the Soviet Union or Iran — to implement inhibition. U.S. inhibition strategies have, historically, targeted a technological capability, not territory, markets, or even particular regimes. Would the Obama administration prefer that Iran cease its support of terrorism and curtail its ambitions in the Middle East? Of course, similar to how the United States wanted the Soviet Union to surrender during the Cold War. Obama’s willingness to put aside deep geopolitical and ideological differences with Iran to secure a deal that limits proliferation is in line with the policies of every U.S. president since Truman. If anything, the United States is likely to increase its military support to regional allies, and the deal is unlikely to dramatically decrease tensions with Iran anytime soon.

Second, inhibition is an extraordinarily ambitious strategy. Getting any sovereign state to limit its ability to develop a weapon that would provide it with the ultimate security is beyond difficult. We should not forget how impressive any deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities is. Iran’s neighborhood is one of the toughest in the world, marked by chaos and discord and populated by bitter enemies, ideological and geopolitical rivals, and nuclear-armed states. It faces adversaries with superior conventional capabilities and has limited abilities to project power, making it the ideal candidate to acquire nuclear weapons. It is no friend to the United States, nor will it be anytime soon. Iran possesses both ample capabilities and powerful incentives to go nuclear. This makes the nuclear agreement, despite its imperfections, all the more remarkable.

Do the strategies of inhibition advance the interests of the United States? On the one hand, the historical record is impressive. In the 70 years since the United States demonstrated the awesome power of the bomb, no other country has detonated them in anger. If you had told most analysts in 1965 or even 1985 that there would be less than ten countries in the world with the bomb in 2015, they would have been deeply skeptical but very pleased. The strategies of inhibition have played a key role in this outcome. On the other hand, this result has come at great cost, however, in terms of expensive security commitments, the sacrifice of geopolitical interests, and even war.

There have been powerful and convincing responses to criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal, including from the administration, prominent think-tankers, academics, scientists, and former skeptics. Seventy years of nuclear experience also favor the deal, though for reasons that are different than often discussed in public. While they may not say so publicly, the Obama administration’s policies can be captured by the words of a high-ranking Bush administration official after the start of the war against Iraq: “My ideal number of nuclear-weapons states is one.” Those who would walk away from this deal would be wise to consider the consequences not just on American safety, but its power in the world.


Francis J. Gavin is the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT and a Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at CNAS. His writings include Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age.