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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.

The author suggests that worst-case scenario thinking and nightmare scenarios create fear and cause unrealistic responses in foreign policy. He also adds that “the offensive utility of nuclear weapons is questionable; they have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He also goes on to conclude that nuclear weapons are more of a deterrent than an actual offense tool. All of these opinions are interesting, but none are grounded in reality. The horror of a nuclear weapon, even if only used a few times in human history, is still enough to create a serious and cautious response to development. Just because nuclear weapons are stored and unused is not reason enough to treat them as an illegitimate threat. A weapon is a weapon, these are not rubber bullets, so to say. While nuclear weapons are a deterrent, they are still loaded with a serious threat, and almost any action taken to secure them is warranted, especially from a country as politically unstable as Iran.

Bergenas heads off the argument of many US policymakers that Iranian defiance of the NNPT would cause it to collapse. He responds by saying that “It’s [NNPT’s] more than 180 committed parties are unlikely to allow Iran’s nuclear program to demolish an institution that is — and has been for four decades — the foundation of nonproliferation efforts.”  This is an excellent point. Fearing the collapse of the NNPT is exaggerated and unnecessary, and it puts doubt on the strength of the countries that make up the NNPT. Doubt in member nations is neither helpful nor constructive, and it makes US policymakers, and international ones, look insecure. With something as serious as nuclear nonproliferation, all member nations must be in agreement and act in unison. Apprehensiveness about the NNPT puts credibility in potential harm, and Bergenas is on the mark in acknowledging this.

The author acknowledges the benefits of an exaggerated stance on Iran’s nuclear policy though, which really stands out in his arguments against exaggeration, as it contradicts what he argues. However, his brief summary of positive benefits of an exaggerated, or what I would call cautious, policy is very astute. “Had the United States not presented Iran’s nuclear aspirations in the darkest of lights, it may not have been able to gain support for four rounds of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic in the last few years.” Even though he contradicts himself, his point is a very good one: that being overly cautious or “exaggerated” can have international benefits. Multination watchfulness, cautiousness can have positive benefits in the long run for foreign policy relating to nuclear nonproliferation. And as history shows, a proactive nuclear policy can make a world of difference, literally, when paired with effective containment.

While I agree with a lot of his ideas, I do consider a nuclear domino effect possible in the Middle East, the opposite of which was what this article was trying to convince me of. I see nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation as extremely important to the peace of Earth. While excessive doubt can hurt the 180 countries that make up the NNPT, fear is not a bad thing, and this is where my paradigm shifts from Bergeras’. Fear is a close cousin to respect. Fear is akin to sincerity. We must acknowledge the desire of nations to provide peace for their citizens, albeit doing so by nuclear means is the absolute wrong way. The issue transcends political sides, both domestically and internationally. Regardless of whether or not a domino effect occurs, or can occur, nearly everyone agrees that Iran’s nuclear proliferation is a very serious subject which carries substantial consequences for the Middle East.

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About rynjhnsn

  • 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.