Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

What Happens After Iran Goes Nuclear?

The final attempts at nonproliferation are on the brink of failure. It's time to start thinking about what comes next.
January 21, 2022
What Happens After Iran Goes Nuclear?
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi arrives for his first press conference after winning the election in Tehran, Iran, on June 21, 2021. Raisi said on Monday that the United States must lift "all unjust sanctions" on Iran and Europe abide by their commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement. (Photo by Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The negotiations aimed at returning the United States and Iran to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are not going well. Unless a major breakthrough happens over the next few weeks, an unlikely possibility, the negotiations could collapse. The Biden administration is reportedly preparing itself, at least psychologically, for this scenario. A nuclear-armed Iran, thanks to five successive administrations, seems probable. It’s time to think about what such a world would look like.

To understand how we arrived at this point, we could draw useful parallels with North Korea. In 2003, President George W. Bushdeclared he would “not tolerate” another rogue regime, North Korea, possessing nuclear weapons. By 2006, the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan had made the public averse to any military conflict, leaving the administration with no coercive measures other than sanctions. So Kim Jong-il called the bluff, detonating a nuclear weapon in October of that year. The United States has since learned to live with a nuclear North Korea. Sixteen years later, Iran is almost where North Korea was then.

In both cases, weakness and irresolution enabled some of the world’s most evil people to develop its most dangerous weapon.

Though five consecutive administrations have made threats (of varying degrees of severity) about a nuclear Iran, none has had enough credibility to deter Iran. The Obama administration slowed Iran’s program through the JCPOA, but even the administration’s officials would admit off the record that the agreement was more of a delaying strategy than a permanent solution to the problem—and that’s assuming that Iran would abide by it.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement and impose severe economic pressure on Iran naturally resulted in retaliation, and Iran has since accelerated its nuclear program. Further, Donald Trump’s aversion to military action also diminished the credibility of his threats, as when Trump called off a strike on Iran at the last minute. By the time Trump made his threats credible by killing Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, he had only a year left in office, and Iran decided to wait him out. So now Iran is far closer to a nuclear weapon than any time in the past.

The Biden administration promised to restart talks with Iran immediately—but Iran wasn’t willing to talk with us, at least not directly. Instead, negotiations were and still are mediated by third-parties. The administration defended the fruitlessness of diplomacy by pointing out first that the administration in Iran was a lame duck, then explaining that the new Iranian administration was just getting organized, and, now, weakly complaining about Trump’s withdrawal from the original agreement. The merits of these arguments won’t prevent a nuclear Iran.

Iran is not going to voluntarily give up its nuclear program. This much is clear. Why should they? Muammar Qaddafi gave up his program, and he was overthrown with American help only a few years later. The Kim dynasty persisted, and it remains in power. Pakistan became nuclear, and it receives American aid despite fighting a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan.

On top of that, Iran has no reason to believe that the United States would take out its nuclear program militarily. The administration has made clear through the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the slowness of its response to Russian threats against Ukraine that military intervention anywhere outside the Indo-Pacific is out of the question.

There has long been speculation that Israel would unilaterally destroy Iran’s nuclear program, as it did to Iraq’s in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. But the moment of opportunity for such an attack may have passed, and Israel may now lack the capability to destroy Iran’s key facilities.

Under the current circumstances, the best feasible scenario is that the Biden administration succeeds in reaching an agreement that would slow down the program for some years—until a more resolute future president gets the job done. Yet the probable outcome is that Iran is going to acquire nuclear weapons within the next few years, and the world ought to learn to live with it and plan ahead.

Popular dissatisfaction with the revolutionary, Islamist regime has boiled over in recent years, generating massive protests and unrest. In response, the regime’s domestic oppression is becoming severer and even more brutal. This in return will exacerbate the current resentments and increase violent uprisings. Normally, the American interest—and one hopes, policy—would be to support the people against their oppressors. But when the latter are armed with nuclear weapons, unrests implies a risk of loose nukes, so America will have to adopt a policy of strengthening a leading abuser of human rights and sponsor of terrorism.

In all likelihood, Iran’s proliferation will lead to proliferation south of the Persian Gulf as American partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seek their own nuclear weapons as deterrents. This would put the United States in the odd position of either using coercive arms control measures like economic sanctions against its own partners—even though America’s own negligence has forced them into proliferation—or condoning their nuclear programs. Either case, but especially the latter, would risk the end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (It is important to point out that North Korean proliferation has not yet led to proliferation by Japan and South Korea—although it has generated the debate in those countries—partially because those countries have mutual defense treaties with the United States, and partially because they are liberal democracies, neither of which is true of the Arab kingdoms.)

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons does not automatically lead to a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv, and testing a nuclear weapon is not the same as the capability to deliver one—but it does impart a capacity for escalation that broadens the scope for other aggression. In recent years, Iran has become more agrressive against its neighbors in the region and has waged cyber, disinformation, and covert terror operations against the United States. These campaigns will escalate, while America’s capacity to respond in kind through its own soft-power will be limited due to its potential to destabilize the regime.

The United States has learned how to live with hostile nuclear powers—first the Soviet Union, then China, then North Korea. There is probably a way to contain Iran. But it’s much less likely that the spread of nuclear weapons can be confined only to the world’s most hated regimes. It is certain that such a containment will be expensive and difficult.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.