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Is the Middle East Playing With Nuclear Dominos?

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In an article published in Foreign Affairs, titled “The Nuclear Domino Myth,” Johan Bergenas argues that a nuclear domino effect resulting from Iran’s nuclear weapons program in the Middle East is an overly fearful theory with no historical basis.

Bergenas points toward historical trends in nuclear arms races, the US nuclear umbrella, and the containment power of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) as reasons to delegitimize the nuclear domino theory in the Middle East. If the international community continues to use the theory, he argues, a self-fulfilling prophecy may find the region in an actual nuclear arms race.

Bergenas defines the nuclear domino effect (NDE) in the context of Iran’s influence: “If Iran develops nuclear weapons, its neighbors will inevitably do so too.” The author also points out that exclusively one political group does not use NDE. The theory is used by people on all sides of opinion to characterize the dangers of nuclear Iran, people like “US Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA)…John Bolton, conservative former ambassador to the UN, to Vice President Joe Biden.” The author assumes reader familiarity with the history of Iranian nuclear activity and after presenting his disbelief in nuclear domino theory, gives the reader an historical record of nuclear proliferation and regional influence. Bergenas points to the historical record of global nuclear development, or lack thereof, as proof that the nuclear domino theory in the Middle East is only a myth, and certainly not as dire as supporters have made it out to be.

He highlights that “after Israel developed a nuclear weapons capability in the late 1960’s, no regional nuclear chain reaction followed, even though the country is surrounded by rivals.” He calls attention to a similar situation after North Korea developed their nuclear weapons program, without causing South Korea or Japan to domino and develop in competition. The author also suggests that the strength of the NNPT and US influence have dissuaded many possible domino effects as well. He suggests that the US effort, and their visible success in avoiding widespread nuclear proliferation then, are the very reasons a nuclear domino effect remains a myth. He concludes this argument of nonproliferation through containment by pointing out heavy US influence and success in managing the Middle East’s nuclear desires, mainly citing United Arab Emirates’ back down.

The author then attempts to head off some of the fear surrounding the idea of a domino effect to show how the theory rests in fear and exaggeration. He suggests that all the previous nuclear developments “represent dyadic arms buildups — a scenario that cannot be ruled out in the Middle East.”  In other words, the main acceleration in nuclear weapon development has occurred between two competing countries, not geographical areas: Russia vs. US, and India vs. Pakistan. Bergenas criticizes the United States’ understanding of Iran and the Middle East, claiming, “policymakers have a difficult time thinking about the implications of a nuclear Iran…reprising outdated fears…or modern perspective.” He also points out that exaggerated predictions of the annihilation of Israel have no basis, and that “all nuclear powers have relied on their nuclear capabilities for deterrence, and there is no reason to believe that Iran would act differently.” The author concludes his criticism of nuclear fear with a warning on self-fulfilling prophecy: “The myth of a nuclear domino effect creates an excuse for other Middle Eastern countries…to acquire nuclear weapons themselves.”

Bergenas fails to make the distinction of containment vs. nuclear domino effect. He highlights the importance of US influence: “These countries’ [South Korea/Japan] decisions to not go nuclear are largely thanks to extensive US efforts to dissuade them.” He acknowledges US involvement and influence, but uses this to suggest that containment is capable of stopping a domino effect. This nuclear containment policy of the US is in place to stop a domino effect in the first place, so how can he argue that it exists only as a myth? At the beginning he makes his opinion clear: “the historical record does not support it [nuclear domino effect].” Just because the historical record does not support it, does not make it illegitimate, actually the opposite is true. The fact that the US has a containment policy in place points to the legitimacy of a nuclear domino theory. Whether this effect has ever occurred historically, well, thanks to the US, NNPT, and UN nuclear sanctions, we as a world community have never had to discover. Containment confirms the seriousness of nuclear domino theory; it does not make it illegitimate.

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  • Ruvy

    The big issue with nuclear proliferation is the fact that Persia – which deserves to have a nuclear force – is governed by maniacs who want very badly to use those weapons. Get rid of the messianic maniacs, and there is nothing wrong with a Persian nuclear force. Until these maniacs are exterminated, Persia delenda est.

  • kurt brigliadora

    I think a third party should be in control,of who has nuclear power in that area of the globe … hey what ever happen to the bush “axis of evil”how soon we forget.

  • Oliver Svenson

    If Israel did not have nuclear weapons, a Middle East without those guns would be more realistic. The US government should stop playing the world judge, defining who is responsible and who is not. Instead of this position, there should be a vehement struggle for general disarmament.