“The Second Nuclear Age and the “Nuclear Strategy Limbo”: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis of Contemporary Nuclear Threats with an Insight on Iran”

by Roberto Maria Sciarra

1  Introduction

The Post-Cold War Nuclear State of Knowledge

As I am writing this paper, nine countries in the world possess approximately 15,700 nuclear weapons (ICAN, 2015). These countries are namely the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Among these nine countries, the last four of them have not signed or ratified the 1968 Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which gives them unconstrained freedom in the buildup of their nuclear arsenals. Other countries, such as Iran, are considering to change their nuclear strategy and directing their nuclear resources towards a nuclear weapons program. Iran, particularly, has had a long-term ambiguous relationship with its nuclear program. Alongside Iraq and Libya, the Islamic republic has been historically identified as one of the “rogue states” because of its recent non-compliance with the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections. Indeed, although the IAEA never found evidence of actual nuclear weapons inside the Iranian nuclear facilities, it is plausible that the Ayatollah Khomeini “revived Iran’s nuclear weapons program after Iraq started to use chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War” (Cordesman & Al-Rodhan, 2006, p. 107).

Nuclear terrorism, rogue states, and more aggressive nuclear strategies are just a few of the challenges of what scholars call “second nuclear age” (Bracken, 2012; Payne, 1996; Gray, 1999). Indeed, in terms of nuclear threats, the Cold War was a relatively safer environment compared to the one of the second nuclear age. This was possible because, under distinctive circumstances, nuclear deterrence was extremely successful in de-escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). However, with the end of the Cold War and the bipolar order, the world entered into a much more complex multipolar geometry, which, other things equal, affected also the role of nuclear weapons and the theory of nuclear deterrence. Nowadays, it is far more threatening to think about the Islamic State or Iran being able to acquire a nuclear warhead than about the Soviet Union being able to build a nuclear arsenal of 30,000 warheads back during the Cold War.

Therefore, the purpose of this research is to understand in what ways the international community can curb the threats emerged in the second nuclear age. An example of the danger of these threats is the one of the United States. Contrary to the Cold War period, the United States can no longer rely on its vast nuclear arsenal to provide strategic reassurances from the possible threat of a proliferation outbreak in Iran or a nuclear attack by North Korea to Seoul. Key point of this study is that, if Cold War nuclear deterrence theory has become outdated, the new theoretical and empirical models entrap states into a “nuclear strategy limbo” between nuclear disarmament and renewed nuclear doctrines to ameliorate deterrence.

The paper is structured as a deductive research because I will draw conclusions from a broad spectrum of theoretical research, followed by empirical evidence through qualitative data and case studies.

The first section of this study will explore the emergence of new theories that might replace the outdated Cold War paradigm on nuclear deterrence and provide new theoretical solutions to these contemporary nuclear threats. In order to understand these sets of theories, I will undertake a historical journey on the development of Cold War nuclear deterrence. Comparisons between conventional and nuclear deterrence will be made to understand under what circumstances nuclear deterrence has been successful in preventing a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). Once I will provide evidence that the circumstances under which nuclear deterrence flourished and developed are changing and no longer valid, I will analyze the theoretical guidelines states might follow nowadays in the second nuclear age to get out of the “limbo”. These sets of theories are divided in power-based and norm-based models. Power-based theorists (Paul, 2000; Cimbala & Scouras, 2002) will determine what factors might push states to acquire nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age. On the other hand, norm-based theorists (Dhanapala & Rydell, 2005; Lavoy & Wirtz, 2012) will determine what factors could make the acquisition of nuclear weapons less attractive than a disarmament strategy. There is no evidence of which model is the most accurate in providing solutions to these nuclear threats; however, both sets of theories are useful to get a grasp of the “nuclear strategy limbo” in which states find themselves.

In the second section of this study, I will proceed by suggesting what policies states are, or might be, choosing to actually curb contemporary nuclear threats and get out of the strategic “limbo”. I will divide the policies into multilateral, bilateral, and unilateral efforts. Multilateral efforts mainly turn around the strengthening and transformation of the Non Proliferation Treaty (Kittrie, 2007; Sauer, 2007; Mattis, 2009) and, therefore, towards nuclear disarmament. Bilateral efforts might include bilateral disarmament treaties, such as the START agreements, but also nuclear deals. While the former, if properly enforced, might create a disarmament precedent (Cimbala, 2001; Dekker, 2010), the latter might be seen as a “legal exception” to the NPT provisions and might trigger an illicit proliferation cascade (Mannully, 2009). Unilateral efforts, mainly driven by power-based theories, include the modernization of nuclear technologies (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2012) and the shift of nuclear doctrines such as the one of “minimum deterrence” (Nichols, 2013), which leads to the development of a much more aggressive form of nuclear deterrence based also on the contemplation of tactical nuclear strikes.

In order to strengthen the hypothesis that, in the second nuclear age, states find themselves trapped into this “nuclear strategy limbo”, the third chapter will focus on Iran as the most prominent case study to analyze both my empirical and theoretical findings. Firstly, I will go through the historical background of the Iranian nuclear program from the beginning until the discovery of its covert nuclear facilities (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007). Secondly, I will apply the theories of the first chapter to understand whether Iran should, or should not, acquire the nuclear bomb (Cordesman & Al-Rhodan, 2006; Ottolenghi, 2010; Sagan & Waltz, 2013). Thirdly, I would show how Iran is an example of a nuclear ambiguous state by looking at its multilateral, bilateral, and unilateral nuclear efforts (Mousavian, 2014; Entessar, 2009).

The concluding part of the dissertation will emphasize mainly two issues. Firstly, Iran, whether or not it will complete the construction of a nuclear warhead, will anyway set a precedent for the international community either as a proliferation or disarmament trendsetter. Secondly, there is an urgent need of comprehensive changes to get the international community out of the trap of nuclear dilemma, whether that will come through an eventual proliferation cascade or comprehensive disarmament.

2  From Cold War Nuclear Deterrence to the Second Nuclear Age: A Theoretical Analysis of Contemporary Nuclear Dynamics


The Cold War was marked by a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The arms race was theoretically justified by the idea that both nuclear arsenals were so deadly that their military use was strategically costly rather than beneficial. Indeed, the destructive power of these nuclear arsenals played a fundamental role in deterring the escalation of a full-scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Under these circumstances, Cold War nuclear deterrence theory was extremely useful in uncovering the reasons behind the absence of conflict between the two superpowers. Cold War nuclear deterrence was based on two interrelated assumptions. Firstly, since the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenals balanced each other, they mutually deterred a nuclear retaliatory attack even in the face of high tensions (Quester, 2001).  Secondly, U.S. and Soviet nuclear doctrines were not directed towards a policy of aggressive nuclear proliferation. Both countries conceived nuclear weapons as the ultimate means for increasing defensive capabilities rather than offensive ones, developing what was called “first-strike nuclear stability” (Kent & Thaler, 1989).

However, with the end of the Cold War and its bipolar world order, the world entered into a much more complex multipolar nuclear geometry, which affected also the role of nuclear weapons in the international arena.  The post-Cold War nuclear period is also referred as “second nuclear age”, according to several scholars (Bracken, 2012; Payne, 1996; Gray, 1999). For Bracken, the second nuclear age represents the geographical shift of nuclear proliferation towards Asia. With the rise of the Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms race, the North Korean defection from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the already established nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, the Asian region has become the epicenter of nuclear tensions (Bracken, 2012). On the other hand, Gray believes that the second nuclear age is just a period of strategic nuclear uncertainty defined by the absence of a clear-cut political rivalry similar to the one of the Cold War (Gray, 1999). Payne, lastly, claims that the proliferation of technologies related to the development and usage of a nuclear weapon is the original triggering factor that led to the development of this complex nuclear geometry (Payne, 1996). Although the definitions of “second nuclear age” may vary among the aforementioned scholars, all of them highlight that this new nuclear era has posed concerns on the validity of Cold-War deterrence theory. Either that is due to nuclear uncertainty, technological proliferation, or to geographical shifts in the nuclear epicenter, “a ‘second nuclear age’ would replace the Cold War paradigm of nuclear bipolarity” (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2012, p.5). Additionally, with the rise of “rogue states” and nuclear terrorism, which emerged after the end of the Cold War, this contemporary nuclear era became the catalyst of new threats that old-fashioned deterrence theory could no longer provide strategic reassurance on.

As stated in the introduction, there is the need to explore the emergence of new theories that might replace the outdated Cold War paradigm on nuclear deterrence and provide new theoretical solutions to these contemporary nuclear threats. This section of the paper will be mainly divided in two parts. The first part will uncover the reasons why nuclear deterrence theory no longer applies for second nuclear age dynamics. Comparisons between conventional and nuclear deterrence will be made alongside the analysis of the denying and punishing capabilities of classic deterrence (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). The findings in the first section will lead into the second part of the paper in which two sets of theoretical models will be analyzed; indeed, the theories might be useful to provide ameliorated strategic reassurances to states in the second nuclear age. The theories will divide between power-based and norm-based theories. Power-based theorists will try to suggest what strategic reassurances would push states to acquire, or build more, nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age. On the contrary, norm-based theorists will determine which factors make the acquisition of nuclear weapons less likely than a disarmament strategy. There is no clear suggestion on which set of theoretical considerations is the most exhaustive in providing solutions to these nuclear threats since none of them fully does. However, both sets of theories are useful to get a grasp of the complicated reality surrounding the second nuclear age.

In the concluding section, a reiteration of the findings of the research will lead into a final comprehensive analysis. The analysis will show that, although old-fashioned deterrence theory is no longer valid, the adoption of a specific strategy that follows only one of the two theoretical solutions might nonetheless create an even higher nuclear security dilemma, which currently reflects the ambiguity that states have with nuclear policymaking.


Cold War Nuclear Deterrence

As the world witnessed for the first, and hopefully the last, time the military use of two nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II, the international community was shocked and, at the same time, captivated by the destructive power that a military weapon could have on the battlefield and society. After the end of World War II and in the early years of the Cold War, social scientists, policymakers, and military strategists alike started to believe that the destructive power of nuclear weapons was so high that it could transform a weapon, for the first time in history, as the ultimate means for stability and security. One of the first and most prominent theoretical works that have been fundamental in understanding the relevance of nuclear weapons for the international community is Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz’s The spread of nuclear weapons: an enduring debate (2013). The book was first published in 1995 and, since it is considered to be the cornerstone of theoretical studies on nuclear proliferation, it has been constantly updated for 18 years to include more recent issues on nuclear proliferation. As the title already suggests, the book takes the form of an intellectual exchange of opinions between Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan on the strategic meaning of nuclear weapons. The former, one of the most influential scholars in international relations and founder of neorealism, believes in horizontal proliferation. The argument that Waltz makes is that the more states have nuclear weapons the more the chances that states will not go to war against each other (Sagan & Waltz, 2013).  According to Waltz, the reason why the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons has a positive outcome in international relations is nuclear deterrence. Indeed, states that possess nuclear weapons are afraid of the destruction that might follow after a nuclear war. This strongly discourages them to not only use nuclear weapons but also to engage in any kind of risky war with conventional forces. Waltz believes in the successful effect of nuclear deterrence due to his realist background; his argument turns around the idea that states live in an anarchic system and that make rational calculations for the costs and the benefits of war.  Since the obvious cost of nuclear weapons makes war impossible, the optimal outcome should be more states building a nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, Waltz believes that the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War is the main factor that explains the absence of major international wars since 1945 (Sagan & Waltz, 2013). Indeed, nuclear weapons, being the most annihilating weapon in the world, have made the costs of a full-blown nuclear war so high that the only strategic advantage of they have is the one of bringing complete absence of war. Since mutual assured destruction offers no gains for any of the parties involved in the conflict, Waltz argues that, paradoxically, nuclear weapons helped to de-escalate the tensions arising between United States and the Soviet Union (Sagan & Waltz, 2013).

Scott Sagan, on the other hand, believes that uncontrolled nuclear proliferation will ultimately lead to nuclear accidents and unwanted nuclear warfare. The reasoning behind his argument is the organizational frailty of states in controlling nuclear weapons (Sagan & Waltz, 2013).  Although he agrees with Waltz that states are rational actors and are aware of the tremendous costs of a nuclear war, the military organizations are the bodies who really own the capabilities of launching a nuclear attack. Military bureaucracies undermine the rational calculations of states because they rely on rigid and standardized operations to respond to tensions and uncertainties during a conflict. These responses might even include an overestimation of threats by the military that could escalate into an accidental nuclear war. Sagan says that such nuclear difficulties rose even within the United States government during the Cold War, a country well known for its military accountability towards the government. The real threat following the collapse of Cold War nuclear deterrence emerges in countries that do not have the same civilian control over the military of the United States. An example of this could be the military conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan in 1991. The conflict almost escalated into a nuclear conflict between the two states, also due to the fact that the Pakistani air forces loaded some nuclear warheads on their F-16 aircrafts without having informed their Prime Minister (Sagan & Waltz, 2013).

By looking at history, Cold War theory of nuclear deterrence is the mirror of Waltz’s realist assumptions for the explanation of the absence of conflict between the two superpowers. During this period policymakers and strategic theorists started to emphasize the difference between nuclear deterrence and conventional deterrence. According to Cimbala and Scouras, during the Cold War deterrence experience, policymakers thought that conventional deterrence relied mainly on its denial capability whereas nuclear deterrence relied on its punishment capability (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002).  The denial capability of conventional forces was, and still is, usually understood as an active form of deterrence; military, air, and naval forces can be used to destroy enemy military and strategic assets,  “denying them significant combat capabilities” (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002, p. 76).

Cold War nuclear arsenals, on the other hand, took the form of a passive and retaliatory deterring force, which was based on punishing capability and credibility (Gray, 1999). The punishing capability referred to the actual nuclear arsenals that the two superpowers had at their disposal for retaliation in case of an attack. In the case of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had such powerful nuclear capabilities that not only could threaten the annihilation of the enemy but also much of the entire world. Credibility, according to Cimbala and Scouras (2002), was much more difficult to measure compared to capability. Indeed, while capability is usually measured by the mere number of tactical nuclear weapons that a country can deploy in case of an attack, credibility is measured by the nuclear doctrine and strategies that a country adopts to justify what threats will determine a nuclear retaliatory attack. During the Cold War, due to the commitment of the United States to defend Western Europe with NATO and the Soviet Union with the Warsaw Pact, it was very unlikely that both states were able to understand what where the vital objectives for which both countries would have launched a retaliatory nuclear attack. Indeed, Botti tends to believe that the absence of a clear-cut nuclear war plan was the main origin of nuclear tensions between the superpowers during the Cold War (Botti, 1996). However, the political objectives of the United States and the Soviet Union were clear enough that nobody really thought that the absence of a credible nuclear strategy would have led to nuclear warfare. Actually, it is probably due to the mutual weakness of a solid nuclear doctrine that both states were extremely cautious in bringing brinksmanship close to nuclear warfare. Neither of the superpowers was sure whether a conventional attack to the other party was enough to justify a retaliatory nuclear punishment. Therefore, not only did the two superpowers never reach the brink of nuclear disaster, but they also did never use conventional forces to deny each other’s military capabilities. Following on Waltz’s claims, during the Cold War nuclear weapons actually forced the United States and the Soviet Union towards a de-escalating process and, eventually, towards the development of a disarmament regime.

To further explain the difference between conventional and nuclear deterrence, Kent and Thaler (1989) propose a model in which technological developments in the military sector have historically influenced whether deterrence moved towards a more offense or defense dominant scenario. Their main argument is that, under conventional deterrence theory, technological developments tend to transform deterrence towards a more offense dominant posture. Eventually, in an offense dominant scenario of conventional deterrence, any kind of attack to one party will be followed by assured retaliation on the offender. The technological developments in nuclear warfare, however, contradicted the aforementioned assumptions. As Cimbala and Scouras claim, “a temporary form of attack had eventually produced its antithesis: a countervailing form of defense” (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002, p.80). As all the technological advancements in the military field, nuclear weapons were thought to be ultimate solution in achieving military superiority throughout various conflicts. Nonetheless, when the superpowers recognized its destructive power, they moved towards a first-strike-stability strategy. First-strike stability was defined in a way that, in a two-sided relationship, both powers recognized that a nuclear first strike would not provide any benefit and, as a consequence of such, neither side was tempted to think about a nuclear preemptive strike (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). As a result, the offense dominant conventional deterrence that marked most of military strategies in the modern era had been replaced, during the Cold War, by a much more defense dominant form of nuclear deterrence based on first-strike stability.

Cold War nuclear deterrence, therefore, could be summarized as a defensive form of retaliatory deterrence that was based on a high component of capability and a poor level of credibility. The poor level of nuclear strategies applied to no real military war scenario and the exaggerated nuclear arsenals developed throughout the years were the two main reasons that pushed the superpowers towards a military passive form of deterrence. When nuclear deterrence moved towards first-strike stability, nuclear weapons became the first military technological advance that lost their complete strategic denial capability. Although both nuclear arsenals were technically displaced via land, air, and sea, they ideologically ceased to be thought as tactical and strategic weapons that could be used to destroy enemy military capabilities. For policymakers, this model of nuclear deterrence based on first-strike stability quickly became a dogma to explain why nuclear weapons could be extremely beneficial for national security and to maintain stability in any circumstances.

What some old-fashioned policymakers tend to neglect nowadays is that Cold War nuclear deterrence was based on a set junctures that made nuclear weapons a defensive maximizer. First and foremost, in the bipolar nuclear order, which was strategically more stable and more easily overseen by the two superpowers than a multipolar one, issues such as rogue states and nuclear terrorism were either inexistent or easily managed.  As a consequence of this, it was much easier for the two superpowers to focus only on deterring each other even in the face of high tensions and eventual nuclear accidents. Secondly, the now obsolete Cold War nuclear technologies were highly cumbersome that policymakers knew that the enemy would have easily foreseen a nuclear preemptive attack. An example of this is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in which the Soviet plan to move some nuclear warheads to Cuba was easily noticed by the United States. Nowadays, the ever-increasing developments in technology are probably re-shifting nuclear weapons from a defensive to an offensive maximizer. An example of such is the Chinese qualitative modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Yeaw, Erickson, and Chase suggest that, since the Chinese government has made enormous upgrades to its missile guidance systems, it might reconsider its no-first-use doctrine and potentially expand its threshold for nuclear use (Yeaw, Erickson, & Chase, 2012).

Therefore, the set of junctures that made Cold War nuclear deterrence effective transformed into a new set of junctures. Bracken says that structural differences have emerged within the second nuclear age, therefore, it would be an immense mistake to think about the first and the second nuclear age as of historical periods that rely on the same nuclear deterrence strategies (Bracken, 2003).  Similarly, Yohishara and Holmes claimed that:

The structural differences between the first and the second nuclear age include the addition of new players to deterrence; the inextricable bond between the bomb and the ‘power, legitimacy, and status’ of postcolonial states; the prospective interactions among established nuclear weapons states and new entrants to the nuclear circle; the Asia-centric nature of nuclear proliferation; the temptation for poor countries with weak conventional forces to go nuclear; and a surfeit of technology and know-how that was unavailable to the original nuclear weapon states (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2012, pp.5-6).


Considering these assumptions, the second nuclear age has paved the way to multiple strategic options on nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is no longer easily theorized as it was during the Cold War. A more complex nuclear geometry has emerged in which states might adopt new concepts of nuclear deterrence.

Having acknowledged that nuclear deterrence is shifting into something new, scholars have started to propose new theoretical solutions to explain contemporary nuclear dynamics. The next section will deal with power-based and norm-based theoretical models of nuclear deterrence in order to have a better understanding of what surrounds the second nuclear age.


Second Nuclear Age Deterrence Models

1) Power-based theories: Hard Realism and Frictional Deterrence

As stated in the previous section, once the Cold War ended, even its logic of nuclear deterrence ceased to exist as such. As Paul claims, “within a bipolar structure, the leading alliance partners—i.e., the two superpowers—tightly controlled allied states’ nuclear ambitions, whereas a multipolar system allows more states to obtain nuclear weapons” (Paul, 2000, 7). Nuclear deterrence in the multipolar order became unpredictable; the result of the post-Cold War scenario is one of increasing nuclear instability due to the new strategic views states could adopt to deter enemy forces. This increasingly unstable scenario might push states to reconsider both their nuclear capabilities—from one of disarmament to one of nuclear strategy—and their nuclear credibility— a much clearer and offense dominant nuclear doctrine. Power-based theories try to provide a realist account of states’ nuclear weapons programs to foresee why they should acquire more nuclear capability and credibility.

Realism has always tried to explain why states should pursue a nuclear weapons program. Scholars such as Mearsheimer believed that the international system is an anarchic realm and states must acquire weapons in order to survive in this system (Mearsheimer, 1994). Traditionally, states think that, by constantly acquiring armaments, they will be prepared for deterring any attack from another party. Being one of the first classical theories of international relations, it is not a surprise that realism yielded a reasonable explanation on the vertical spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In order to solve the security dilemma, indeed, the United States and the Soviet Union deterred each other with a nuclear arms race. However, realism might not provide a thorough understanding of the second nuclear age dynamics. Classical realism relies on the idea that states acquire armaments to increase their defensive capabilities, whereas, nowadays, the nature of international nuclear arsenals is potentially changing towards more aggressive nuclear strategies.

Hard realism better explains why states should acquire nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age. Although hard realists share much of the claims of classical realists, they have a deeper understanding of the contemporary nuclear developments of some state’s arsenals. Indeed, as Paul argues, “nuclear weapons, combined with air power and missile technology, have decreased the defender’s time to respond, and so nations are more likely to acquire nuclear weapons so that they can deter surprise attacks” (Paul, 2000, p.6). Countries such as China have already gone through this process of military technological transformation. The development of its missile technologies was followed by a reduction of the nuclear arsenal and the per-warhead destructive capacity. This combination of smaller weapons and technological advances has brought China to probably rethink its old nuclear doctrine towards a much more offense dominant form of nuclear deterrence, since these tactical nuclear warheads have acquired more denial capability than the ones during the Cold War. The result is that states, under these specific circumstances, should seek more self-help than they would under conventional defensive efforts, in which one could rely on collective security and, in the case of the Cold War, nuclear umbrellas (Paul, 2000). Additionally, hard realists claim that any multilateral effort such as the creation of a non-proliferation regime might only endanger small and non-nuclear states. (Paul, 2000) .The biggest concern is the cheating factor, which, especially due to the nature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, grants unconditional withdrawal to states and makes the possibility of a proliferation cascade very likely. Indeed, it is possible to think, for example, that Japan might change its nuclear doctrine if it thinks it would help to deter its nuclear neighbors. Since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has historically been a non-proliferation trendsetter and never thought to develop a nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, if one considers the recent withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT, the rising nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, the already well-established Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals, but, more than anything, the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella doctrine from Asia, Japan might have more than one reason to reconsider its nuclear doctrine.

Further concerns rise on the role of deterrence in the second nuclear age if one thinks about the problem of friction during nuclear pre-war plans. Carl von Clausewitz has elaborated the concept of friction in periods of tensions and conflict in his work On War. Clausewitz claims that:


Friction is the difference between war on paper and real war—all of the things that can go wrong when the military machine is set in motion during times of peace, crisis, or war… it also refers to the potential of each link in the chain of command, or each individual soldier in battle, to exercise an independent will that causes events to stray from prewar plans (qtd in in Cimbala and Scouras, 2002, p. x)


Although every state faces this potential risk of unplanned deterrence failure, countries like the United States and Great Britain, for example, might not suffer much from high levels of friction because they are politically stable and have high control on their nuclear chain of command. The contrary could be said for states such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea that tend to be relatively unstable and might trigger higher levels of nuclear instability due to the high potential of each individual in the nuclear chain of command to act differently from pre-war plans.. Furthermore, if one considers the way in which some states nowadays think about their nuclear arsenals as an offense dominant form of deterrence, it could be that friction might lead to more nuclear instability than there was during the defense dominant Cold War deterrence scenario. States are aware that nuclear friction might lead to a failure of deterrence; indeed, one might think that the existence of nuclear friction during periods of tension and crisis might push states towards disarmament. However, since most of the states still hold onto Cold War nuclear paradigm, they think that it is always better to have a second-strike deterrence force than any nuclear weapon at all.

Power-based theories have exposed only one the two trends of the second nuclear age. If only this theoretical framework existed and was universally accepted, then all the states that are capable to build a nuclear arsenal might be encouraged to do so. Power-based theories, however, are not capable to grasp a universal trend and tend to be quite acquiescent on particular topics. Indeed, even if one shares the realist assumption that, under the previously analyzed circumstances, all states are rational actors and should focus on self-help, power-based theorists do not take into account the role of nuclear terrorism in their theoretical analysis. Indeed, even in the possibility that all the states in the world would be able to acquire a nuclear weapon, none of them would properly deter the threat coming from a nuclear-armed terrorist group. Unlike states, terrorist groups such as ISIS or the A.Q. Khan’s nuclear network are far from being rational actors engaged in the survival and the integrity of the territory in which they operate. On the other hand, they would be the main actors capable in fostering nuclear accidents, also due to the Clausewitz’s argument of the unpredictable will of each player in the chain of command to go nuclear (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002).

In conjunction with the theoretical gaps on nuclear terrorism, these theories cannot explain why most states, even in the face of high nuclear tension, do not actually cheat or withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Certainly, whether the NPT is a comprehensively effective regime goes beyond the purpose of this section, but it is undeniable that, mainly because of this treaty, only 8 states in the world possess nuclear weapons and only one of them “spontaneously” decided to withdraw from the treaty (i.e. North Korea).

The aforementioned gaps further reinforce the argument that power-based theories are not exhaustive in understanding all the trends surrounding the second nuclear age .In fact, there are also very valid reasons why states should not pursue an independent nuclear program in the second nuclear age, and norm-based theories try to uncover them.


2) Norm-based theories: Liberal Institutionalism and Prudential Realism

Just after the period of high nuclear instability following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union both agreed on the emergence of a non-proliferation agreement. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was initially established in 1968 to ensure the nuclear hegemony of United States, USSR, China, France, and Great Britain. The treaty divided the world in Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapons State (NNWS). While the former were still able to maintain their nuclear arsenals untouched, all those states signing the treaty that did not build and test a nuclear device before 1968 could no longer develop a nuclear weapons program. Whether the structure of the NPT is one of the main causes of nuclear instability today is a topic that will be covered in the second part of this paper. However, it is also important to acknowledge that, in 1968, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and other 59 countries signed the treaty. Realists would argue that it is unlikely that all the countries that signed the treaty in 1968 were spontaneously committed to the purpose of the NPT considering the strategic advantage that a nuclear weapon was thought to have. Rather, it is plausible the NNWS were given an incentive by the superpowers to sign the treaty. The main incentive was the establishment of U.S. and Soviet nuclear umbrellas, which basically granted nuclear protection to allies without having them to acquire their own nuclear capability (Olson & Zeckhauser, 1966). Therefore, once smaller states were given nuclear protection by the nuclear hegemons, they could easily sign the treaty without thinking about the potential strategic losses that the NPT concealed beneath. Nonetheless, when the Cold War ended and the Soviet menace disappeared, the nuclear umbrellas previously built to deter Communism either disappeared or became much looser. Under a hard realist perspective, the end of the Cold War nuclear umbrellas also meant the end of nuclear protection of smaller and weaker states by the two superpowers, which could eventually use this chance to disregard the norms established by the NPT in order to maximize their security. However, nowadays almost all states in the world (except from Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) are still part of the treaty and comply with its non-proliferation rules.

The liberal institutionalist school tries to uncover the reasons why states might think that prolonging their compliance with the NPT and opting for nuclear non-proliferation gives much more benefits than building a nuclear arsenal. Institutionalists ascertain that international institutions determine and alter state behavior towards specific issues, such as non-proliferation, with norms and rules contained in regimes (Keohane, 1993). While rules punish those who perpetrate illicit actions, norms are like international guidelines that help states in making complex decisions. What really makes institutions powerful, however, is that, in the long run, their norms become embedded in states’ national policies. As also Paul claims, “liberal institutionalists see national decisions to eschew nuclear arms, especially since the early 1970’s when the regime became embedded, as largely the function of constraints imposed by the nuclear non-proliferation regime” (Paul, 2000, p.10). If nowadays most states are part of the NPT even with the rising threats emerging from the second nuclear age, it is because they have made long-term legal commitments to the non-proliferation regime that, ultimately, has transformed their national policy towards one contemplating nuclear non-proliferation. Therefore, according to liberal institutionalists, states are now likely to maintain their non-proliferation policies even in the absence of a non-proliferation regime, since its norms became embedded within the member states. Such an example is the 1995 indefinite extension of the NPT after thirty years. Indeed, as Dhanapala and Rydell state, the NPT was one of the few treaties in the world that had an expiration deadline of 25 years, since states wanted to be sure that, if the international situation deteriorated by the end of that time, they could still legally develop nuclear weapons.  (Dhanapala & Rydell, 2005). If states maintained a hard realist perspective, the best solution would have meant the end of the NPT and a rapid horizontal nuclear proliferation. However, the liberal institutionalist school has gained a lot of momentum when the 1995 Review Conference established “permanent legality” to the treaty (Dhanapala & Rydell, 2005).

The norms pertained in the NPT and the security-conscious identities of states can be combined, according to Paul (2000), into a softer version of realism based on strategic prudence. Indeed, it is true that states are defense-maximizers, but it does not mean that maximization can always come from a greater acquisition of nuclear armaments. According to Paul, “cautiousness and enlightened self-interests characterize state’s behavior in a matter such as nuclear weapons, possession of which could generate unanticipated negative consequences” (Paul, 2000, p.5). If the acquisition of nuclear capabilities might be seen as threatening, states might actually endanger their security by pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In addition to this, nuclear weapons program are very costly; states realize that if the costs of pursuing a nuclear weapons program are too high compared to their other economic and political goals, they might renounce to it in the first place. Furthermore, if states want to keep their economic and political goals high, they need to consider that the world has become globalized. States will economically and politically isolate those countries that might create nuclear instability with the acquisition of a nuclear weapons program.

Norm-based theories have tried to present the other side of the coin in respect of nuclear proliferation. In the second nuclear age there are also circumstances in which states might opt to back down from their nuclear ambitions if they think they are too risky for their security. The NPT has made most of the effort in showing these dangerous circumstances by establishing an international guideline for states and in transferring those guidelines in most countries’ national policy.  However, even advocates of liberal institutionalism do not have an absolute theoretical framework to explain nuclear states’ choices. It is true, for example, that the NPT indefinitely extended its mandate; however, the extension of the treaty was possible only because it was accompanied by some drawbacks. The biggest delusion was, and it still is today, that there was not a provision that could establish a specific timeframe for nuclear disarmament, one of the principal aims of the regime (Dhanapala & Rydell, 2005). Similarly, prudential realism might not be consistent in high-level nuclear tension areas. Eastern Asia is probably the most nuclear unstable area in the world. In this area, non-nuclear weapons states such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are surrounded by nuclear weapon states with which they also have historical political rivalries (China and North Korea). Under these circumstances, their security calculations might induce states to think that, in reality, the only way to reduce their security dilemmas is to acquire nuclear weapons.

The concluding part of this section will try to summarize the findings and the issues related to the theoretical state of knowledge. There will be an emphasis on the trends emerging from this research in order to understand the reasons why the international community should pay more attention to the second nuclear age and the “nuclear strategy limbo”.


What has surfaced from this section is a trend that might further reinforce the idea that second nuclear age dynamics cannot be explained with Cold War nuclear deterrence theory.

The first section showed the circumstances under which Cold War nuclear deterrence emerged as a successful model.

Firstly, the bipolar order and the equal nuclear capabilities of the two superpowers transformed nuclear weapons from a means intended to deny enemy military capabilities to one that could only bring mutually assured destruction. In a bipolar and relatively politically stable order, it was very likely that the United States and the Soviet Union could manage any kind of potential nuclear threat.

Secondly, the missile technologies of the Cold War were still cumbersome and could not grant any tactical advantage for a surprise preemptive attack. Under these circumstances, nuclear deterrence was initially theorized as the explanation for the absence of conflict during Cold War years. Cold War nuclear deterrence theorists believed that, in a clear and politically two-sided situation, nuclear warheads became defensive and retaliatory weapons with a mere punishing capability (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). Since the punishing capabilities of the two powers were equally destructive, nuclear deterrence was useful to maintain a first-strike stability, triggering the absence of military conflict between the two powers.

With the end of the Cold War and the rise of the multipolar order, the circumstances that made Cold War nuclear deterrence effective disappeared. Nuclear weapons ceased to exist as a means of necessity but became means of strategic choice, due to the absence of a clear East/West political rivalry (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2012). This resulted in the crisis of Cold War nuclear deterrence theory and the emergence of new theoretical models that could give better strategic reassurances to states in the second nuclear age.

The second section analyzed these two sets of theoretical models, power-based and norm-based theories, which states might follow in order to reiterate their nuclear strategies and fill the strategic gap of the obsolete Cold War nuclear deterrence theory.

Power-based theorists, such as hard realists and frictional deterrence theorists, claimed that the best strategic option states have in order to curb the threat of the second nuclear age is the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hard realists draw their considerations on nuclear proliferation from mainstream realism, in which states seek, at any cost, to survive in an anarchical international arena (Mearsheimer, 1996). However, hard realists also recognize the importance of the technological development in the missile-launching systems, which have decreased the defender’s time to respond to a potential nuclear strike. Under these conditions, states are more likely to obtain nuclear weapons to deter surprise attacks. Similarly, frictional deterrence theorists believe that nuclear friction is a key component of nuclear instability today. Smaller and weaker states, according to frictional deterrence theorists, lack the capacity to have an optimal control of their nuclear chain of command, which might act differently from pre-war plans and trigger nuclear friction (Cimbala & Scouras, 2002). The result is that states will be more likely to acquire their own nuclear arsenal to prepare to the unthinkable.

Norm-based theories, such as liberal institutionalism and prudential realism, try to show, on the contrary, that the end of Cold War nuclear deterrence and the rise of nuclear instability might have pushed states towards non-proliferation strategies. Liberal institutionalists use numbers to show that, actually, there are more Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) than Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) in the world. The reason behind it is that the non-proliferation regime, with 30 years old norm-setting process, has altered state behavior (Paul, 2000). If nowadays most states are part of the NPT even with the rising threats of nuclear terrorism and rogue states, is because they have made long-term legal commitments to the non-proliferation regime that, ultimately, have transformed their national policy towards one contemplating nuclear non-proliferation. Prudential realists combine the importance of the institutional norms of the NPT with realist strategic calculations to explain why states would not benefit from the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal in the second nuclear age. Prudential realists believe that, in a highly interconnected world, the acquisition of nuclear weapons might look threatening for allied states, increasing, rather than decreasing, the security dilemma (Paul, 2000).

Both power-based and norm-based theories present very convincing models to explain the changing nature of nuclear deterrence. The main issue with these two models, nonetheless, is twofold. Firstly, unlike Cold War nuclear deterrence, these models do not present an exhaustive theoretical solution to all the problems that are related to the second nuclear age. Both models tend to underestimate the problems emerging from nuclear terrorism and the general lack of supervision of non-state nuclear organizations (i.e. A.Q. Khan’s nuclear network). Furthermore, none of the models considers the problems emerging within each country’s political elites. Changes in ideologically different administrations, might prioritize the use of nuclear weapons or the need for disarmament alternatively, a feature that was absent during the Cold War due to the clear ideological rivalry between the two superpowers.

Secondly, both models are in complete contrast with one another, and, therefore, this further enhances the biggest problem observed in the second nuclear age: the “nuclear strategy limbo”. Indeed, in this limbo, it is very unlikely that states that are either totally committed to new nuclear strategies or to non-proliferation and disarmament because most of them are driven by both power-based and norm-based models. However, the dangerous multipolar nuclear order might push states to swiftly change their nuclear doctrines towards one of the two theoretical models, if circumstances require it. These changes might either include the modernization of nuclear arsenals from defensive to offensive and tactical weapons or much more comprehensive non-proliferation steps. The problem with these decisions is that states might face repercussions in fully adopting one model rather than the other; therefore, they try to maintain ambiguous nuclear doctrines. By maintaining this nuclear ambiguity, the international community cannot fully curtail the nuclear threats of the second nuclear age. The potential solutions I foresee, without a further implementation of the theoretical models, are two: unanimous nuclear proliferation or nuclear disarmament. The first option is very unlikely to happen because, among other things, some states do not even have the technological and military capability to build a nuclear weapon. The second one, although it could seem the most plausible, requires a very difficult and radical change in the non-proliferation regime, without considering the constant fear of cheating.

In conclusion, this section highlights the need of further theoretical analysis related to these new deterrence models to understand how to curb the threats of the second nuclear age. The “nuclear strategy limbo” mirrors the incapacity of both theoretical models in providing states with doctrine such as the one during the Cold War. If states want to solve the problems related to nuclear deterrence, nuclear terrorism, and “rogue states”, the nuclear status quo needs to change its path. However, theoretical findings require time and research, which is something that policymakers do not have at their disposal. Therefore, considering the actual theoretical findings of the first section, there is now the need to look at what policymakers are doing to break loose with the “nuclear strategy limbo”.


3 Getting Out of the “Limbo”: Nuclear Policymaking in the Second Nuclear Age


The previous section showed in what ways Cold War nuclear deterrence seems to no longer provide adequate strategic reassurances for the second nuclear age. As a result of this, countries find themselves in a “nuclear strategy limbo” because the theoretical models that I proposed do not provide a clear guidance towards specific policies.  As also Paul argues, “Hard realism tends to overpredict acquisitions of arms (including nuclear) and arms races, while liberalism errs in the opposite direction, with overly optimistic expectations for cooperation and nonproliferation” (Paul, 2000, p.14). Accordingly, states find themselves in making difficult strategic choices that are both power-based and norm-based, which do not provide them with the same strategic reassurances of Cold War nuclear deterrence. In the absence of an unconditional nuclear strategy, the risk of nuclear accidents of any sort is increased and might push states to quickly adopt risky nuclear choices.

The purpose of this section is to analyze what actual strategies states can opt to best achieve nuclear security and to escape the “nuclear strategy limbo” of the post-Cold War scenario, considering the previously debated theoretical models. This section will be an empirical analysis divided into three parts, which represent the three sets of strategic options that are currently available for states to curb contemporary nuclear threats. These options are namely unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral efforts.

The first part will deal with the changes in unilateral strategies. Indeed, most nuclear weapon states still regard nuclear weapons as an indispensable security maximizer, whether they are locked in the Cold War paradigm of countervailing nuclear forces or they are opting for a minimum deterrent. However, according to Nichols, nuclear deterrence in the second nuclear age is effective not because of the number or variants of nuclear weapons that a country might possess, but because policymakers “fear the risks and consequences of any nuclear use at all” (Nichols, 2013, p.85). Therefore, if fear, rather than nuclear capabilities and strategies, is at the core of nuclear deterrence, then humongous nuclear arsenals are useless. As a consequence of this, most nuclear states started to think about a policy of minimum deterrence. By drawing assumptions from power-based and norm-based theories, it will possible to see whether minimum deterrence encourages proliferation or disarmament trends.

In the second part of the section, I will utilize a similar analytical approach to shed light on nuclear bilateral efforts. Generally, in international law, bilateral agreements tend to have minor effects in the international scenario. However, nuclear bilateral agreements are peculiar because of the strong repercussions that they could have at the international level, since they create precedents that might trigger a proliferation or disarmament cascade. To see whether nuclear bilateral policymaking efforts are proliferation or disarmament trendsetters, two main bilateral agreements will be analyzed: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the 2005 US-India Nuclear Accord.

In the third section, much of the discussion will be based on the role of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a cornerstone of multilateral nuclear efforts. The section will begin with a brief history of the treaty and the main articles within it. Key concern in this section is to understand the evolution of the treaty from the first to the second nuclear age in order to see what the NPT lacks nowadays and where it could be further improved. Indeed, with the end of the Cold War, there has been a further polarization between Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) and Nuclear Weapons States (NWS). While the former group is still focusing on disarmament as a priority of the NPT agenda, the latter puts emphasis on new nonproliferation measures first, which leaves the current framework of multilateral policymaking deadlocked (Ford, 2012). Therefore, I will propose a vast array of scholarly policymaking suggestions in order to understand how to further strengthen the NPT (Wirtz & Lavoy, 2012; Dunn, 2012; Cirincione & Robichaud, 2007; Dhanapala, 2007; Kittrie 2006; Sauer, 2006).

The concluding section will reiterate the findings of the empirical analysis and highlight that the range of policymaking choices is not scarce; however, the whole discussion intensifies the hypothesis that countries are in the “nuclear strategy limbo” and, at the current theoretical and empirical level, both disarmament and proliferation options have large-scale opportunity costs.






Unilateral Efforts: Minimum Deterrence

Although the concept of minimum deterrence has found fertile ground after the end of the Cold War, it is a nuclear strategy that was taken in consideration by military strategists even during the early days of nuclear proliferation.  The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), already analyzed in the previous section, emerged alongside the one of minimum deterrence. Indeed, this strategic posture was emphasized as one of the many ways the United States could make sense of its nuclear arsenal. Minimum deterrence is the belief that nuclear weapons can deter any sort of enemy with the fear of destruction and humanitarian impact over society, no matter what number of nuclear weapons are used. According to Lewis, the concept of minimum deterrence is in complete contrast with the logic of second-strike nuclear war plans and countervailing nuclear forces. He believes that any policymaker would hardly find himself in calculating nuclear exchange ratios or second-strike capabilities when contemplating a nuclear war. They would either back down or fully escalate towards nuclear war (Lewis, 2008).

Empirical evidence proves that, in the early days of the Cold War, the United States initially conceived its nuclear arsenal as a form of retaliation that did not include strategic nuclear superiority or countervailing nuclear forces. By the end of the 1950’s, President Dwight Eisenhower, hardly a nuclear supporter, repeatedly rejected strategic advices concerning the expansion of the nuclear arsenal. “You just can’t have this kind of war,” he said in 1957. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets” (qtd. in Newhouse, 1988, p. 120). Correspondingly, the once Chief of Naval Operations Rear Admiral Roy Johnson, a military strategist himself, numerically proved that, actually, minimum deterrence is better manageable at low numbers. In a top-secret 1957 memo, the Admiral stated that:


Assured delivery of rather few weapons is sufficient to inflict terrible punishment… The first 10 delivered weapons would produce a major disaster with fully a quarter as many casualties as the first hundred. For this reason the ‘assurance of at least some’ capability is vastly more important than the achievement of any arbitrarily derived ‘adequate’ deterrent level (qtd. in Burr, 2009)


Nonetheless, the notion of minimum deterrence immediately started to lose popularity as soon as the Soviet Union started to develop its own nuclear arsenal, critically fostering the speed and intensity of the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers. Being two ideologically different rivals unable to fully grasp each other’s nuclear intentions, fear-driven policymakers were forced to find their only strategic reassurances in MAD strategies, under which both the United States and Soviet Union would have been able to fight any kind of nuclear warfare. As also Nichols argues, the debates on minimum deterrence were already promising at the beginning of the Cold War, where “military and civilian leaders were just beginning to comprehend the immense capability of nuclear arms”, however, “[the debates] were quickly overwhelmed by the grim and complicated arguments of the nuclear strategists, as well as by the virtually uncontrolled expansion of the military-industrial complex and its nuclear cottage industries in the 1950’s” (Nichols, 2013, p.90).

With the rise of an unstable multipolar nuclear order and the increasing concerns over nuclear terrorism, it is not a surprise that countries have started to re-think that the real power of nuclear weapons is not concealed in numbers or war plans, but on the disastrous effect of just another Hiroshima. If one looks at the Japanese pacifism, for example, it would be possible to draw the conclusion that two atomic bombs dropped in 1945 were able to change the mindset of a country that now, although surrounded by unstable and hostile nuclear powers, still universally condemns the military use of nuclear weapons.

Therefore, all nuclear states in the second nuclear age, excluding the United States and Russia, decided to start curbing the threats of the second nuclear age by adopting a policy of minimum deterrence. India, for example has decided to have a minimum nuclear deterrent that can be deployed only in case of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack by Pakistani forces. The Pakistani military, on the other hand, claimed that “they may be forced to use a limited number of nuclear weapons early on Pakistani soil, in necessary, to thwart an Indian invasion” (Sagan & Waltz, 2013, p.156). The Indo-Pakistani nuclear deterrents, although peculiar due to their history, are useful to understand one of the features of minimum deterrence: inflexibility. Indeed, a minimum deterrent, according to Younger, might have a destabilizing effect and could actually increase the probability of a nuclear war, “tempting an attacker to think it could destroy all or most of our nuclear weapons in a first strike, effectively eliminating our ability to respond” (Younger, 2009, p.213). Another potential problem that might emerge from an inflexible minimum deterrent is that it could have only one target: the enemy regime. According to Nichols, “nuclear targeting under a doctrine of minimum deterrence, then, rests not on calibrated attacks against purely military objects, but instead on threats to destroy population centers, also known as ‘city-busting’” (Nichols, 2013, p.98).

At the same time, however, a minimum deterrent, by being inflexible, might also foster more security and stability by clearly highlight which are the boundaries a state does not have to trespass if it does not want nuclear retaliation. Indeed, if an aggressive state decides to cross those boundaries, it will have to include an assured nuclear retaliation in its calculations. As of nowadays, all the NWS in the world, except the United States and Russia, have decided to adopt a minimum nuclear posture with clear policies. The United Kingdom has clearly stated that its minimum nuclear deterrence is meant only to deter “the most destructive forms of aggression” (Bloom, 2010). The Chinese government too has been clear on its minimum nuclear force by stating that the Chinese fundamental goal is “to deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China…[remaining] firmly committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances” (Yeaw et al. 2012, p.58).

One of the most relevant features of minimum deterrence is that, depending on one’s perception, it might either set a proliferation or disarmament precedent that might help states to get out from the “nuclear strategy limbo”. By following norm-based theories, it is possible to say that, if a country pledges to a no-first-use policy and reduces its nuclear forces just extreme retaliation, it might decrease the risks related to nuclear accidents and illicit diffusion of nuclear materials to terrorist groups. A universal reduction of nuclear arsenals might easily make disarmaments efforts much easier than ever. Indeed, “would-be nuclear proliferators, as well as general critics of American foreign policy, constantly point to the large U.S. nuclear arsenal as the prime example of American hypocrisy and selfishness when it comes to nonproliferation efforts” (Nichols, 2013, p. 116). If the US would be able to opt for a minimum deterrent strategy, it would actually set a strong precedent in leading the way for more comprehensive nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

Power-based theorists, on the other hand, might argue that, within the actual framework, a minimum deterrent might endanger small and NNWS. Indeed, most of the Western countries and US allies have refused to build their own nuclear arsenals reassured also on the idea that the United States would defend them with a nuclear umbrella. If the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, it will be forced to declare the exact boundaries under which it might consider the nuclear option. Will a North Korean invasion of South Korea be enough to justify nuclear retaliation on Pyongyang? Since this solution is unlikely to be observed in the real world, the only proposal that hard-relists might envisage is the one in which all the nuclear capable states would opt for a nuclear weapons program aimed at minimum deterrence, in order to create nuclear stability at the cost of the nonproliferation regime.

In both cases, the actual status quo would not help states to understand whether minimum deterrence will set the stage towards nonproliferation or disarmament. As previously mentioned, both theoretical and empirical evidence shows that minimum deterrence alone does not represent the ultimate solution to curb the threats of the second nuclear age because it would require major disarmament or proliferation changes. These changes, as previously observed, cannot be implemented if states are not sure to be strategically better-off in this new environment.

Therefore, the next section will highlight that, by expanding the range of policy choices to bilateral agreements, states might have additional tools to curb contemporary nuclear threats.

Bilateral Efforts: The New START Treaty and the 2005 US-India Nuclear Accord

When Nuclear Weapons States start negotiations for bilateral nuclear efforts, they always set a precedent for the non-proliferation regime, either in a positive or negative manner. One of these bilateral efforts is the one between US and Russia in the field of nuclear arms control, embodied in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The relevance of this treaty for the whole nonproliferation regime is twofold. Firstly, it is fair to say that any nuclear arms reduction effort is always seen as a positive trend towards disarmament. Secondly, the peculiarity of this arms reduction treaty is that is signed by the United States and Russia, proprietors of 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Therefore, their engagement in nuclear reductions has always amplified the need to build a road towards a nuclear weapons free world, a statement that President Obama shared in a meeting of the UN Security Council on 24 September 2009, two months before the expiration of the original START treaty (den Dekker, 2010, p.81).

The START treaty traces its roots back in 1982, when Ronald Reagan presented at the UN in Geneva a plan for the reduction of nuclear arms, at the time still called Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) (Talbott, 1982). The talks continued until July 31, 1991, where George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty, later ratified in 1994, for a period of fifteen years. The treaty, which started in the last days of the Cold War, was initially meant to de-escalate a 40 years long arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, subsequently the Russian Federation, at a strategic level (den Dekker, 2010). Indeed, with the signing of the treaty both states recognized the exaggerate amount of nuclear weapons at their disposal. Nonetheless, they never abandoned the Cold War paradigm on nuclear weapons. Even when the new START was ratified in 2011, it still included the same confidence-building, monitoring, and verification mechanisms for Cold War arsenals ; it set specific limits of deployed and non-deployed weapons; and made clear distinctions on whether these weapons are deployed on vehicles that pose a first- strike threat or are useful only for countervailing nuclear forces (Reif, 2009). The treaty, although signed in 2009, is clearly framed not towards the achievement of minimum deterrence but on an obsolete Cold War framework that no other Nuclear Weapons State is willing to follow.

By applying theory to practice, power-based theorists would be skeptical in seeing the new START as a nonproliferation trendsetter. Their main argument finds solid ground if one looks at the reasons for the delay in the conclusion of the follow-on treaty. One of the setbacks for the punctual implementation of the treaty is because Obama has faced strong political opposition from the Senate, which clearly stated that “further strategic nuclear arms reductions are considered unnecessary, or even harmful to US security interest” (den Dekker, 2010, p.86). Furthermore, the international security context is not promising. Indeed, in a period in which the United States has committed its military forces all around the globe, especially for the fight against terrorism, power-based theorists might argue that this is the moment to modernize the nuclear arsenal rather than going through further nuclear arms reductions. However, the biggest problem for START is that, even if the new treaty has been successfully implemented, further reduction in the future are going to be unlikely due to the relevance of Russian nuclear forces for its security. In 2010 its military strategic doctrine review, Russia stated “it still considers the US and NATO to constitute fundamental threats to Russian military security” (den Dekker, 2010, p.87). What is more threatening, nonetheless, is that, due its weak conventional forces, Russia links its nuclear strategy to conventional military operations and fears that arms reduction treaties are a way of the US to impose its conventional military superiority against the Kremlin.

On the other hand, norm-based theorists might actually claim that, even if START is still entangled in the Cold War paradigm, the willingness to pursue any kind of nuclear arms reduction treaty still remains of invaluable importance to trigger a disarmament trend. Norm-based theorists would recall the 2009 G-20 summit as the willingness by US and Russia to achieve the legal obligations of nuclear disarmament under the NPT. Indeed, both Presidents Medvedev and Obama, said that they were going to sign a START follow-on treaty, “in fulfillment of their obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” (qtd in den Dekker, 2010, 88). By stating that nuclear disarmament is an international legally binding step that all states should pursue, both countries have committed themselves to lead the world towards nuclear disarmament, creating a strong nuclear precedent. Norm-based theorists would argue that, although the arms reduction treaties are very slow in their purpose and are still framed in the Cold War paradigm, they still set a higher moral ground for the pursuit of non-proliferation.

Similarly, when a NWS engages in negotiations with a would-be proliferator or non-signing country of the NPT, there is the need to hold other assumptions for both proliferation and disarmament trends. This is the case of the 2005 nuclear deal between the United States and India, which is also important to understand the recent Iranian nuclear crisis. The deal was officially signed by both countries to “allow for civilian nuclear trade with India while not impeding India’s ability to make as many nuclear weapons as it wants with its own materials”(Weiss, 2015). Strategically speaking, however, both countries immensely benefitted by this agreement. The United States wanted to achieve this deal in the first place for its geopolitical and economic interests in the area. As also Paul argues, “The nuclear accord is a major step taken by the United States to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan and to develop a comprehensive relationship with one of the world’s fastest growing economies” (Paul, 2007, 848). Considering the past Chinese influence on the Pakistani nuclear program, it was wise for US military strategists to consider counterweighing the nuclear Chinese influence in the area with this deal. In this way, the United States has shown a serious commitment to re-establish good political relationship with a country that has alternatively supported both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For what it concerns the Indians, the deal affirms the country’s status as an official nuclear weapons state without having to sacrifice its nuclear arsenal. Historically, India has been the most critical country against the NPT establishment in 1968. Indeed, while countries such as Japan and Germany were given “side deals” – i.e. strategic reassurances under the US nuclear umbrellas—India never received them, “partly because it was not willing to accept them given its policy of nonalignment” during the establishment of the NPT (Paul, 2007, p.850). Furthermore, India did not want to accept the idea that NPT made a clear division between nuclear haves and have-nots, without counting the problems emerging in the Pakistani interest in going nuclear.

The deal, therefore, came to satisfy both countries’ needs and to try to bring stability in a high nuclear tensions area. However, power-based theorists would be highly skeptical of such an agreement. The main reason is because the deal was the only solution to convince India to be indirectly part of the NPT, which might weaken the position of the nonproliferation regime itself. Indeed, since bilateral agreements make such exceptions to internationally binding rules of the NPT, “will other fence-sitters states tempted to acquire nuclear weapons now be expecting a side deal similar to that which India has obtained from the United States?” (Paul, 2007, p. 851). Iran might request a similar deal with Russia, or China might concede extraordinary favors to Pakistan just in response to that treaty. In addition to this, the deal has just reinforced the fact that the nuclear haves possess the ability to decide whether other countries can enter the nuclear club or not, irrespective of their strategic needs.

One of these cases is the North Korean Agreed Framework in 1998, in which the country “agreed to mothball its nuclear production facilities and make its nuclear history transparent, in return for the construction of two nuclear reactors for generating electricity and ongoing shipments of heavy crude oil” (Weiss, 2015). Given the silence of the treaty on uranium enrichment, North Korea sought to explicitly create a clandestine uranium facility without actually going against the norms of both the Framework and the NPT. The ultimate result was that, not only the bilateral agreement distorted the monitoring activities of the IAEA and NPT, but also it allowed North Koreans to exploit the situation to their advantage and withdraw from the treaty in 2002 once having tested a nuclear device.

Like North Korea, Iran might exploit a bilateral agreement to further weaken the NPT and build a nuclear device. However, the US, not willing to commit another mistake, has fiercely opposed the Iranian uranium enrichment process, which is legal under the NPT, while being friendly with India or even silent with Israel. The concluding analysis is that power-based theorists do not think that nuclear deals help nonproliferation but, rather, create unfair nuclear hegemonic systems that might cause other would-be proliferators to ask for the same treatment.

For norm-based theorists, such deals represent a form of support for the NPT to extend its judicial arm in places that could otherwise not reach. Indeed, according to their reasoning, it was thanks to the US-Indian nuclear accord that India placed its current and future nuclear plants under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (Paul, 2007). Critics of this interpretation might argue that the deal did not have any provision to prevent India to increase its nuclear capability. However, it is still very unlikely that India, which is strongly against the current status of the NPT, not a member party, and currently engaged with a nuclear arms race with Pakistan, will deliberately accept to give up its nuclear weapons. Indeed, the deal could actually be seen as a first form of approach towards disarmament and might actually be replicated whenever the US best thinks it should be.

These forms of bilateral efforts, in conclusion, show mixed results. Nuclear arms reductions, on one hand, tend to be much more important and straightforward for setting a nonproliferation agenda and help states to get out the limbo rather than nuclear deals. The reason why is because the new START, or similar treaties between other countries, entail a willingness of both parties to de-escalate nuclear tension by directly aiming at the source of the problem: nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, nuclear deals could be seen just as strategic appetizers that might refrain would-be proliferators to go nuclear. In both bilateral efforts, nevertheless, it is possible to see a negative trend emerging: the discriminatory nature of the NPT. The nonproliferation regime is fundamentally based on an organizational hypocrisy that enshrines two classes of memberships with different rights and responsibilities, one for the nuclear haves and the other for the nuclear have-nots (Lipson, 2007). The duty of the nuclear haves is just the one of maintaining their nuclear hegemony and prevent nonproliferation – also with the help of such bilateral agreements—while not pursuing what the majority of the other member states has already achieved: nuclear disarmament.

To further understand why the NPT evolved into this problematic regime, the next section will go through the structure and the future of the main source of multilateral efforts: the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Multilateral Efforts: The Non-Proliferation Regime

Before looking at the structure of the NPT, it is commonly accepted that the whole regime is facing a critical situation. Apart from not being able to prevent the Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms race and the North Korean proliferation shock, among other things, critics argue that the general trend shows the inability of the non-proliferation regime in being persuasive enough to make a nuclear weapons program appear dangerous and costly for would-be proliferators (Ford, 2012). One of the main reasons of the contemporary ineffectiveness of the treaty today is because it was created in the bipolar framework of the Cold War and has never been altered thereafter. The rise of the second nuclear age brought to the fore the need of a change in the operational framework of the treaty, and most experts in this field have concrete policies to “rebuild an unraveled consensus” on the NPT (Dhanapala, 2007, p. 21).

The intellectual background under which the NPT flourished was one of ignorance and fear on the military use of nuclear weapons. Right after the end of World War II and nuclear explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States itself decided to take a resolute stand in nuclear disarmament by establishing the 1945 United Nations Atomic Energy Commission “for the purpose of eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes” (Graham & LaVera, 2011, p.98). Fears of world nuclear breakout started to increase when, in the subsequent years, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, and China tested their first nuclear weapon, making clear that the earlier US assumptions on the scarcity of nuclear resources and the difficulty to master nuclear technology were not accurate. It is during the mid-1960’s that US President John F. Kennedy said that, by the end of the 1970’s, more than two dozen states would have been able to build a nuclear weapon (qtd. in Graham & Lavera, 2011).

It is under this logic of fear that the initial nuclear powers decided to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to other countries with the creation of an internationally binding system strong enough to foster nonproliferation compliance. Whether other countries perceived that the treaty was not strong enough, the creation of nuclear umbrellas by the United States and the Soviet Union helped to persuade those countries. To better understand the framework under which the NPT works, here is a list of the most important articles of the treaty:

  • Article I: “Each nuclear weapon state undertakes not to transfer nuclear weapons or any other nuclear explosive device ‘to any recipient whatsoever’ or to assist any state in acquiring nuclear weapons or any other nuclear explosive device”
  • Article II: “Non-nuclear weapon states shall receive nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices form any other state, manufacture such device itself, or seek to receive assistance in developing such devices from any other state”
  • Article III: “The Non-Proliferation Treaty provides for ‘full-scope’ safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all declared nuclear facilities of non-nuclear weapon states.
  • Article IV: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”
  • Article VI: “Each party to the treaty pursues negotiations in good faith toward an early cessation of the nuclear arms race and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons”[1]

Having these articles in mind, it is very important to understand where the NPT has failed, where it is successful, and what are the solutions to improve it. If one looks at nonproliferation efforts, clearly the NPT can be considered a success because “the number of nuclear weapon states has risen from five in 1968 to nine in 2006” (Sauer, 2006, p. 333). However, if one looks at Article VI, no serious action has been taken by nuclear weapon states towards nuclear disarmament. Indeed, for more than 40 years most of the non-nuclear weapon states have complied with Article II and Article IV without objecting the lack of compliance with Article VI by nuclear weapon states.

This unfair relationship between nuclear haves and nuclear have nots worsened with the end of the Cold War and its bipolar order in which non-nuclear weapon states were forced to find new strategic reassurances from the gradual withdrawal of nuclear umbrellas. It is probably due to this persevered inequality within the regime that the erosion of the norm-setting power of the NPT has transformed the treaty from a lighthouse of nuclear stability to one of nuclear tensions.

However, as also Dunn suggests, historical evidence suggests that past proliferation shocks within the NPT served as a “proliferation decelerator”. “Proliferation shocks”, Dunn writes, “directly galvanized action—whether triggering new thinking, generating internal bureaucratic support within a particular government, or stimulating the political will for action needed globally” (Dunn, 2012, p. 205). Therefore, there is a remarkable piece of scholarly literature that has already proposed feasible solutions to further strengthen the NPT, and some of these solutions will be explored hereafter.

Rather than looking at how states can adapt deterrence theory in the second nuclear age, Tom Sauer advocates that it is the NPT that needs to adapt to the crises emerging in the 21st century (Sauer, 2007). He criticizes the dangers of non-compliance of both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states in respect of Article II and VI of the Non Proliferation Treaty. For what it concerns Article II, evidence shows that there is a clear list of countries that it is secretly trying, and one of them made it, to obtain nuclear weapons (e.g. Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran) or that might plan to obtain them if the situation requires it (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea). Thus far, the Iraqi and Libyan cases have been resolved by military and economic means, whereas North Korea has succeeded in obtaining nuclear weapons, violating the norms sanctioned in Article II, although withdrawing from the treaty (Sauer, 2007).

Article VI, on the other hand, is very open to interpretation, and nuclear weapon states have done almost nothing relevant to engage in a disarmament process.  This lack of progress in disarmament is due to the reluctance of nuclear weapon states in abandoning their only deterrent for nuclear war against nuclear newcomers. At the same time, “non-nuclear weapon states feel more than ever that the obligations under the NPT are only fulfilled by themselves” (Sauer, 2007, p. 337). Therefore, Sauer’s solution on nuclear proliferation is an agreement among non-nuclear weapon states on the strengthening of Article IV (i.e. International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of nuclear facilities) on the condition that nuclear states start multilateral negotiations for disarmament, as required by Article VI (Sauer, 2007, pp. 339-340).

Similarly, Orde F. Kittrie (2007) argues that, in order to prevent the immediate threat of nuclear breakdown, harsh sanctions are needed against those non-compliant state such as North Korea and Iran. Indeed, Kittrie argues that the thus far imposed sanctions have been “too weak to convince North Koreans that their nuclear program comes at too high a price and must be eliminated” (Kittrie, 2007, p. 434).

Therefore, Kittrie proposes a solution that entails multilateral sanctions from other states concerned with nonproliferation. Indeed, if the Security Council is deadlocked by some of the veto powers, then it is in not only in the single states but also in the international community’s interest to stop the perpetrators of illicit nuclear activity.

Lastly, Cirincione and Robichaud (2007), argue that the universalization of the IAEA Additional Protocol would be extremely beneficial to puah would-be proliferators and rogue states back into compliance. Indeed, the main problem with the IAEA, as also described in Article III, is that it cannot monitor undeclared nuclear facilities. As the authors also argue, “without this additional authority, the IAEA is like a policeman with a warrant to search every room of a house—except the basement (Cirincione & Robichaud, 2007, p.16).

Hard realists would say that, even if the NPT adopts these changes, the division between nuclear haves and have-nots created by the NPT will hardly disappear because nuclear states heavily rely on nuclear weapons, even if they adopted a minimum deterrent posture. As a consequence of this, power-based theorists think that non-nuclear weapon states are actually damaged by these NPT provisions and should withdraw from it because it is the main source of nuclear tensions.

Norm-based theorists, on the other hand, would base their argument on the implications that nuclear disarmament is a legally binding provision under the NPT, therefore, this inequality between nuclear haves and have-nots will disappear anytime soon. Much of their hope goes with the NPT Review Conferences, which allows the member states to, among other things, plan a concrete plan of action towards the achievement of nuclear disarmament

In the concluding part of this section, there will be a comprehensive analysis on the findings of this section that might give hints on what states should do in the current status quo in order to curb nuclear threats.

Conclusions: from “Why” to “What”

If the previous section has tried to uncover the reasons why states should or should not pursue a nuclear weapons program to get out of the “nuclear strategy limbo”, this section has tried to show what states can actually do, having the theoretical debate of the previous section in mind.

In the first section, evidence shows that the unilateral strategy of adopting minimum deterrence has gained momentum with the emergence of the second nuclear age. In fact, most nuclear weapon states, except from the US and Russia, think that minimum deterrence is an optimal strategic reassurance to get out of the “nuclear strategy limbo”. For norm-based theorists, minimum deterrence as a strategy to get out of the “limbo” is also good as a disarmament trendsetter. If all the nuclear weapon states adopt this strategy, it would be easier for them to control nuclear accident and follow Article VI of the NPT to go a step further and push for nuclear disarmament. On the other hand, power-based theorist think that minimum deterrence is good only as a proliferation trendsetter. Indeed, with the actual status quo, under which small Western and non-nuclear weapon states receive strategic reassurances from nuclear threats by the US nuclear umbrellas, the only solution they envisage is the one in which minimum deterrence is extended to every state capable to build at least one nuclear weapon.

Similarly, the analysis of the new START agreement and the 2005 US-Indian nuclear accord saw power-based and norm-based theories clashing on whether these agreements are proliferation or disarmament trendsetter. Evidence suggests that while the new START agreement is probably considered to be more of a disarmament trendsetter, nuclear agreements, such as the US-Indian one, might expose the NPT to weakness and might push other “fence-sitting states” to ask for exceptional measures, triggering a proliferation cascade (Paul, 2007).

The last section tried to uncover where the NPT, being the cornerstone of multilateral nuclear efforts, is losing its grasp and where it can improve in order to re-build consensus and become once again the most effective disarmament trendsetter. According to power-based theories, the main failure of the NPT lies within its division between the nuclear haves and have-nots, which will foster proliferation shocks, such as the North Korean and Iranian one, and will ultimately lead other non-nuclear weapon states to follow the North Korean path to curb contemporary nuclear threats. Norm-based theories, on the other hand, still think that a complete collapse of the regime is very unlikely because nuclear disarmament is part of the treaty. Furthermore, ways to achieve nuclear disarmament and rebuild consensus around the NPT are already available and are not impossible to reach, considering also that, every five years, member states of the NPT meet for Review Conferences to discuss what needs to be improved.

In conclusion, what emerges from this section is that, it is true that states have lots of alternatives to get out of the “limbo”. However, these alternatives are reachable only with a change of the status quo. If states decide to universally adopt one of the unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral strategies, this would result in a radical change towards either proliferation or disarmament, which states, due to the “nuclear strategy limbo”, cannot afford. The solution I envisage is a slow process that would start from the adoption of both United States and Russia of a minimum deterrent, with or without bilateral treaties, that puts an emphasis on the strategic uselessness of nuclear weapons, which would then set the right framework to build a comprehensive plan of action to global nuclear disarmament and get rid of any threat coming from nuclear weapons.

4 The Iranian Nuclear Crisis and the Second Nuclear Age: A Concluding Analysis on the Future of the Non-Proliferation Regime



In the previous sections, I tried to uncover the reasons why states should curb contemporary nuclear threats. In the first section, the theoretical power-based and norm-based models have tried to justify why states should, or should not, acquire a nuclear weapon. The second section tried to apply such theories in the real world, looking at what actual policymaking options states have at their disposal to curb these threats. Thus far, both sections are yet proving my hypothesis that, in the actual status quo, states find themselves in a “nuclear strategy limbo”, opting for a strategic dualism that does not help them to be ultimately reassured from nuclear threats.

In order to further strengthen my hypothesis and to consolidate the findings of the previous sections, the last section deals with one of the most recently debated topics in nonproliferation studies: the Iranian nuclear crisis. Especially in light of the recent Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), the future of the Iranian nuclear program is of crucial importance not only to understand the Iranian “nuclear strategy limbo” but also the future of the nonproliferation regime and nuclear weapons. Indeed, as Dueck and Takeyh argue, “Should the Islamic Republic cross the nuclear threshold in defiance of the international community and its long-standing treaty commitments, it would effectively undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that has been the mainstay of global counter-proliferation efforts for nearly four decades” (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007, p.189).

This section will be mainly divided in three parts. The first part will deal with the historical background of the Iranian nuclear program from the 1960’s until the 2002 IAEA’s findings of the covert Iranian nuclear facilities. This part will show that the history of nuclear Iran oscillates from moments in which it seemed that the willingness of Tehran to acquire the bomb was real to others in which the government made it clear that it was against nuclear weapons.

The second part deepens the theoretical discussion of the first section and seeks to uncover the reasons why Iran should or should not acquire a nuclear weapon. An analysis of the international and domestic context is fundamental to understand the possible rationale for pursuing a much harder nuclear program or a much clearer nonproliferation posture. Long standing tensions with the United States and Israel and the 1980 Iraq-Iran war are the factors that usually scholars refer to when they think that Iran should acquire the bomb (Entessar, 2009). On the other hand, fears of strategic loneliness as a result of the acquisition of nuclear weapons and general domestic anti-nuclear weapon feelings amongst elites and Iranian citizens alike are an optimal precondition to push Iran away from the pursuit of the bomb (Hadian, 2004; Mousavian, 2014).

The third part will try uncover what array of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral efforts Iran can utilize for nuclear policymaking. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that Iran, being labeled as a would-be proliferator, is pursuing a strategy of nuclear minimum deterrence. On the other hand, Zahedi writes that the Iranian elites wanted to create a “surge capacity”, meaning that Iran aims at creating “the know-how, the infrastructure and the personnel needed to develop a nuclear military capacity within a short time without actually doing so” (qtd. in Milani, McFaul, & Diamond, 2005, p.6). Bilateral negotiations between the United States, Europe, and Iran have been the cornerstone of the bilateral nuclear efforts, which, until the recent JCPOA, have been always resulting in negative outcomes and in an increase of the nuclear security dilemma. Mousavian thinks that the reason of a decade of failed negotiations is that the West has always demanded Iran to comply to a framework that goes beyond the norm-setting powers of the NPT, with the constant threat of the use of force (Mousavian, 2014). The biggest concerns arise at the multilateral level and within the international framework, since quite nothing has been done in order to satisfy both Western and Iranian demands. Nonetheless, with all this emphasis on bilateral and unilateral efforts, the NPT could expose its current weaknesses in norm-setting and nonproliferation compliance.

Having this framework in mind, the concluding part of the section will emphasize whether the actual JCPOA will help Iran to get out of the “nuclear strategy limbo” and its importance of the nonproliferation regime in the second nuclear age.


The Historical Background of Nuclear Iran


The history of the ambitious Iranian nuclear program does not begin in contemporary times with the Ahmadinejad’s administration, but traces its roots years before the Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, to think that Tehran’s willingness to commit to a military nuclear program rose only after the Iranian Revolution is also incorrect. Therefore, in order to understand the current Iranian stand on nuclear weapons, one needs to look at its nuclear history.

The first steps of the Iranian engagement in a nuclear program date back to Mohammad Reza Shah’s administration in 1956, starting with a series of talks with the United States that culminated with the 1957 agreement between the two countries. With the foundation of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences in the same year, “the United States provided the center with a five-megawatt research reactor, which became fully operational in 1967” (Enterssar, 2009, p. 26). Ironically to say, if one refers to the current Iranian nuclear crisis, the main developments on the Iranian nuclear program have always been centered on bilateral nuclear efforts with the United States as the main player.

In 1972, the Shah’s willingness to increase its nuclear capacity strengthened for mainly two reasons. Firstly, by conducting a research on Iranian energy needs, the results showed that Iran would have needed alternative energy sources in order to satisfy its needs for the upcoming decades (Entessar, 2009). Secondly, with the large scale increase in oil prices after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Iran, which is an oil-abundant country, had the revenues to implement its nuclear capability with an approximate $40 billion investment on twenty new nuclear reactors (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007). With the development of a much more solid nuclear program, the tempting idea of transforming nuclear energy also for military purposes finally came to mind. The one who first suggested the possibility of the Iranian nuclear bomb was Abolfath Mirza Mahvi, which was a Pahlavi confidant and one of the leaders of the Iranian nuclear program.


While on a flight to Chicago with the shah, Mahvi said,


Since the US president will not support your request for America to increase its purchase of Iranian oil, which would, in turn, allow you to purchase more arms, why not considering acquiring nuclear weapons? It will reduce the need to purchase more sophisticated arms and military hardware and will add to Iran’s prestige among the international community” (qtd. in Mahvi, 2009)


Therefore, the willingness to acquire the bomb traces its roots during the years that preceded the Iranian Revolution. Apart from Mahvi’s viewpoint on the acquisition of the bomb as a means to become recognized internationally and be military self-reliant, Georgi Arbatov, a top foreign policy advisor in Moscow in 1978, revealed that Soviet intelligence had gathered enough material to think that Iran was in the process to enter the nuclear club because of the fears of countries such as Israel (qtd. in Abbas Amirie, 2007).

Surprisingly, with the onset of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent intensification of tensions with the United States, Tehran’s willingness to further develop a nuclear weapons program vanished for at least a decade. There are mainly three reasons why Iran has abandoned the idea of the nuclear bomb.

Firstly, the Iranian Revolution itself can be considered a factor that has negatively contributed to the further implementation of a military nuclear capability. The Revolution has been a tumultuous process that has brought a radical change in the regime. This change has established new political ideologies that were inconsistent with the nuclear aspirations of the former regime. Indeed, “for the leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and many others within the clerical elite, the indiscriminate nature of such weapons was seen as inconsistent with Islamic canons of war” (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007, p.190).

Secondly, the change in regime, and the 1979 hostage crisis in particular, also brought to an end former relationships with United States, which, until the outbreak of the Revolution, was the main partner in the development of the Iranian nuclear program. The worsening of the relationship with United States has granted to Iran the inability to access nuclear resources even for peaceful and scientific purposes. “The administration of Ronald Reagan succeeded in obtaining Europe’s agreement to rigorous export controls with respect to dual-use technologies and in getting Germany to abandon its cooperation with Iran’s nascent nuclear program” (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007, p.190).

Thirdly, the harsh US response to the Iranian Revolution ultimately resulted in a first period of international isolation for Iran, further slowing its nuclear advances. The isolation was clear when, during the 1981 war with Iraq, in which Iran was the offended party, did not receive any support from the international community even when the Iraqi army used chemical weapons against Iranians. In addition to isolation, the war became problematic because of the destruction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant that was in its initial phase of construction (Entessar, 2009).

However, despite the initial problems in the development of a solid nuclear program, the new regime has continued to show strong support for the development of a source of energy complementary to oil. With the advent of Russia as a new nuclear partner, and the secret relationship with the illicit Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear network, Iran was able to further implement its nuclear program and restore the Bushehr nuclear plant.

The situation changed, probably for the worse, when Iran has been firstly labeled by George W. Bush as one of the members of the “Axis of Evil” (Mousavian, 2014), and then when the US intelligence revealed a secret nuclear program. As Cordesman and Al-Rodhan suggest, “in September 2002, commercial satellite photos confirmed the existence of major new Iranian nuclear sites in Natanza and near Arak, whose existence and nature Iran had made major efforts to conceal” (Cordesman & Al-Rodhan, 2006, pp.126-127). However, the biggest concern for the West was not whether these facilities were purposely concealed to develop a nuclear weapons program, but the discovery that, at that point in time, Iran was reaching the point of nuclear self-sufficiency. Indeed, if Iran was able to independently build a nuclear plant and to complete a nuclear cycle, “traditional counter-proliferation measures, such as more export controls and curtailment of external assistance, could not measurably slow down its nuclear timeline” (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007, p.191). Acknowledging these nuclear revelations, the West has responded by engaging in a series bilateral negotiations with Tehran to mainly halt the uranium enrichment process and hamper the possibility to develop a nuclear weapon, which will be analyzed later on.

Therefore, the historical background of nuclear Iran shows mixed results. Firstly, although the Shah’s statements were in favor of a nuclear weapons program, the theocratic elites after the 1979 Revolution never confirmed the willingness to pursue such program. However, with the 2002 nuclear revelations and the subsequent hostility of Iran in implementing the IAEA Additional Protocols until the recent JCPOA, it is possible to say that Iran is adopting a nuclear dual standard. The rise of this nuclear standard can be explained with the difficulty that Iran has to get out of the “nuclear strategy limbo”, making it difficult for Tehran to either go nuclear or to withdraw from its nuclear ambitions by order of the West.

As it was possible to see in the first part of the section, the limbo emerges due to the validity of both power-based and norm-based theoretical models. In the next part of the section, it will be possible to use power-based and norm-based claims to understand why Iran should, or should not, develop a nuclear weapon.


Power-based and Norm-based claims in Iran


Why should Iran develop a nuclear weapon?

In order to understand why it is legitimate and strategically convenient for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program, one needs to look at the international context surrounding the Islamic Republic.

The long-term tensions with the United States are one of the main factors for which Iran should develop nuclear weapons. With the Gulf War (1990-1991), the Afghanistan War (2001-2014), and the Iraq War (2003-present), Iran saw itself as the next target over the increasing US military dominance in Middle East conflicts.

Secondly, with Iran supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and other enemies of Israel, the most important US ally in the Middle East, the United States, especially during the George W. bush’s muscular unilateralism,  has constantly called for preventive military strikes and regime change in Tehran (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007).

Thirdly, “the US invasion of Iraq, as opposed to North Korea, has also shown that having nuclear weapons can balance out conventional inferiority” (Cordesman & Al- Rodhan, 2006, p. 12). Given the Iranian nuclear capability and its almost complete nuclear self-sufficiency, being able to recur to a nuclear weapons crash program might prove to be the most effective tactic to deter the United States.

As previously mentioned, Iran has been historically uttering its hatred towards Israel, which is one of the reason why Iran is funding Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups against it. However, apart from the strong anti-Israel propaganda, for Iranian policymakers, Israel actually represents a singular security challenge for Tehran. “Given the fact that Israel is a nuclear-weapons state and is not a signatory to treaties dealing with the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, and given Israel’s continuing threat to strike militarily against targets inside Iran, the Islamic Republic theoretically has good reasons to develop a nuclear deterrent against a nuclear-armed state” (Entessar, 2009, p 29). Another concern for Iranians policymakers revolves around the hypocrisy of West in being quite silent in front of an uncontrolled Israeli nuclear arsenal, while adopting, or threatening to adopt, any measure against the legitimate Iranian uranium enrichment process.

Lastly, one does not need to underestimate the scar that the Iran-Iraq war left on Tehran to understand why Iran has probably reconsidered the strategic importance of nuclear weapons. Even if the war has ended more than twenty years ago and the same regime that had started it has been removed from power, evidence shows that the war is far from being a distant memory. In a speech given at the General Assembly in September 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emphasized such hollowed memories of the war:

For eight years, Saddam’s regime imposed a massive war of aggression against my people. It employed the most heinous weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqis alike. Who, in fact, armed Saddam with those weapons? What was the reaction of those who claim to fight against WMDs regarding the use of chemical weapons then? (Ahmadinejad, 2005)


It is probably the international indifference on the indiscriminate use of such weapons that has probably pushed Iran to rethink its strategic calculations and the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in preventing another unbearable war.

All these reasons are, for power-based theories, more than valid in understanding why Iran should pursue nuclear weapons. The United States and the West are fully aware of such reasoning, however, instead of giving incentives in pursuing other strategic paths, the hard posture that the United States has adopted thus far has only been counterproductive and fostered the importance of the nuclear program for Iranians. In addition to this, the West has been slow in acknowledging that the IAEA has never found evidence of an illicit nuclear weapons program. As also one of the former leaders of the IAEA Hans Blix has stated, “so far Iran has not violated the NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons. The fact that Tehran has enriched uranium up to 20 per cent leads to suspicion of a secret weapons program, however no action can be justified on mere suspicions or intentions that may not exist” (qtd. in Mousavian, 2014, p.536).

As previously mentioned, Iran has been able to enrich uranium in high quantities even in the face of multilateral sanctions and pressures from the West, making it clear that, at this point, it is able to independently pursue a nuclear weapons program if it wants to. However, evidence proves that Iran has not acquired a nuclear warhead. In the next section it will be possible to see some of the plausible reasons why Iran has not developed a nuclear weapon even if capable of doing so. Norm-based claims could uncover these trends and underline that there are also valid reasons why Iran does not want to build its first nuclear bomb.


Why should Iran not develop a nuclear weapon?

There are mainly two reasons why Iran did not develop a nuclear weapons program: strategic loneliness and a general anti-nuclear feeling among the elites. Iran, as almost all the other countries in the world, is part of the NPT and as, liberal intuitionalists argue, the norm-setting of such regime has been, thus far, strong enough to make nuclear proliferation a very unappealing asset (Ford, 2012). The only country that has spontaneously withdrawn from the NPT is North Korea; however, the price that this country paid is probably unbearable for Iran. Indeed, the withdrawal from the treaty would mean a tougher round of multilateral sanctions, which is something that Iran cannot economically afford. Already within the current framework of multilateral sanctions, the Council on Foreign Relations affirms that “Iran’s economy is “15 to 20 percent smaller than it would have been had sanctions not been ratcheted up in 2012 … with the value of the rial [the national currency] declined by 56 percent, inflation reaching 40 percent and… unemployment rate as high as 40 percent” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). For entrepreneurs coming from abroad, it is already impossible to make business with Iran, who is a country that earns the most out of oil exports. As a matter of fact, on June 19, 2004, Hasan Rowhani, the secretary general of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, made very prudential realist claims on such matter by saying:

Our decision not to possess weapons of mass destruction is strategic because we believe that these weapons will not provide security for Iran. On the contrary, they will create big problems. Iran exerted huge efforts during the past few years to build bridges of confidence with the states of the region. We absolutely do not want to blow up these bridges by mobilizing our resources to produce weapons of mass destruction (qtd in Cordesman & Al-Rodhan, 2006, pp.16-17).

The rationale behind is that, by pursuing nuclear weapons, Iran would find itself strategically isolated. Strategic loneliness is something that Iran has costly experienced after the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution and during the Iraq-Iran War, being unable to appeal to the international community even in the face of evident war crimes and atrocities committed with the use of weapons of mass destruction. This is clearly a scenario that Iran does not privilege and, as a consequence of this, it has been constantly trying to find a solution via bilateral and multilateral nuclear efforts.

Linked to the fear of strategic loneliness is the general anti-proliferation feeling of Iranian elites. As also former reformist parliamentarian Fatemeh Haghighatjoo affirms:

[Iran’s] insistence on the [nuclear enrichment] program will create international reactions that in the long run will result in distrust by the international community and endanger the foundations of the regime and undermine its legitimacy… Rather, the government should base its legitimacy on the people’s vote and make every effort to gain the trust of the international community (Haghighatjoo, 2006, pp, 1-2).

Similarly, President Ahmadinejad, while comparing the Iranian nuclear program as “a train without brakes”, was immediately rebuked by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by saying that such statements could jeopardize Iran’s negotiating leverage (Entessar, 2009). Even President Rouhani, a slightly more progressive politician, acknowledges the importance in underlining that Iran is not interested in obtaining nuclear weapons, just in the capacity of doing so, which is achievable only with uranium enrichment. Therefore, for Iranian elites, uranium enrichment is not the mere means to build a nuclear bomb, but is the representation of their willingness to protect their independence (Rouhani, 2013). As Mousavian states, “For Iranians, the nuclear issue is about the legitimate rights of Iran to enrichment under the NPT, a sign of independence and defending the country’s integrity, and not building a nuclear bomb” (Mousavian, 2014, p.538).

Thus, if one follows the theory of prudential realism, Iranian elites have made it clear that they are against nuclear weapons not only for an ideological reason, but also because it could be strategically more beneficial to do so. Nevertheless, it is also incorrect to underestimate the current threats that emerge from the international context in which Iran finds itself into. As evidence shows, the United States has paid little attention on statements by Iranian elites, but it is much more worried that a country that has such hostile surroundings and it is not aligned with the West is able to build a nuclear weapon if the situation requires so. Indeed, if the situation in the Middle East, which is already chaotic, will worsen, Iran has made it clear that it might recur to a nuclear weapons program. As a consequence of this, the United States refuses to let a long lasting hostile nation close to full nuclear independence, refusing to further cooperate with Iran without achieving a deal that hampers uranium enrichment.

On the other side, even Iran has not been cooperative at its best. Although Iranian leaders have always stated their ideological and strategical rejection of nuclear weapons, evidence shows that their policymaking has not been as clear. The biggest concern from the West rose with the aforementioned nuclear revelations in 2002 and the subsequent unwillingness of Tehran to come at terms firstly with the IAEA and then with the West. If the elites have made it clear that they do not want nuclear weapons, what was the urgency to hide their nuclear facilities even after their discovery? Is it just a mere coincidence that, a country that is so oil abundant, has interests in developing nuclear energy up to a point it has mastered uranium enrichment to significant levels? These are the same questions that have been tormenting the West since 2002.

Therefore, as predicted in the beginning, Iran has developed a nuclear dual standard, in which both the acquisition and rejection of nuclear weapons has found solid theoretical ground. Iranian doctrine is definitely both power-based and norm-based and, as a consequence of this, the country finds itself in a dangerous nuclear “limbo”.

What can actually Iran do in its own “limbo”? The next part of this section will try to uncover what unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral efforts is Iran adopting and what impact they have for the nonproliferation regime.




Iranian Nuclear Efforts


Unilateral Efforts

As previously mentioned in the second section of this study, after the Cold War and the rise of the second nuclear age, most nuclear weapon states started to change their nuclear doctrines to face contemporary threats that Cold War deterrence was not able to give strategic reassurances on. What emerged in this scenario was an ambiguous doctrine, minimum deterrence, which could be understood as both a proliferation and disarmament trendsetter. For nuclear weapon states, this doctrine, apart from reducing the risks of nuclear accidents, was much more convenient and effective than an expensive and outdated countervailing nuclear force. However, for would-be proliferators such as Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iraq, and Libya, this doctrine was extremely appealing. Indeed, it is not a coincidence if all the new nuclear newcomers entered the nuclear club right after the end of the Cold War and with the rise of minimum deterrence doctrine. For such countries, even the possession of one nuclear weapon would have camouflaged the relative weakness of conventional forces and would have given stability and strategic safeness to the regime.

It is not due to forgetfulness that Iran has not been included in the list of the would-be proliferators aiming at nuclear minimum deterrence. The reason why is because Iranian politicians never included minimum deterrence within their nuclear doctrine. Rather, the nuclear doctrine of Iran turned around the creation of”surge capacity” deterrence, since the elites completely disregard the idea of a nuclear weapon. This sort of nuclear posture creates deterrence not by the mere possession of nuclear weapons but the threat of developing and test a nuclear device in a very brief period, if the situations requires so. As Milani, McFaul, & Diamond point out, this posture is designed to grant Iran the possibility of quickly developing a bomb “should its regional competitors move in that direction” (Milani, McFaul, & Diamond, 2005, p. 6). This is mainly the reason why Iran refuses any negotiation that has the hampering of its uranium enrichment process as a precondition before the beginning of any talks. It is important to highlight that, although usable for military purposes too, uranium enrichment is legal under the NPT.

Therefore, the adoption of such peculiar doctrine is due to the willingness of Iran to achieve goals that go beyond the mere strategic reassurances of nuclear weapons. Iran is fully aware that, by adopting a minimum deterrence strategy, it would not only risk to become strategically isolated but it would definitely face “retaliation from the United States or Israel that would eliminate their regime altogether” (Dueck & Takeyh, 2007, p.195). These goals have been highlighted in the EU-3-Iran negotiations in 2003. Although these negotiations failed in 2005, they have taught a good lesson by Tehran to the West for the implementation of the JCPOA. Among the other points, Iranian elites have stressed out that with this actual nuclear policy these goals have been:

  • Demonstrating that the Iraqi, North Korean and Libyan models are not the only ones that can be pursued to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons while maintaining Iran’s treaty rights
  • Demonstrating that only negotiations within a framework of equality and mutual respect can result in meaningful and enduring agreements
  • Laying the ground for the gradual removal of economic sanctions and obstacles that have prevented Iran from developing a more robust economy (qtd. in Entessar, 2009, pp 30-31).

The doctrine of “surge capacity” deterrence, therefore, can be interpreted theoretically by both power-based and norm-based claims. Iran recognizes the need to find nuclear strategies that provide strategic reassurances against its hostile neighboring countries and that do not foster strategic loneliness in the international arena. A possible crush program for nuclear weapons would be a strong power projector in the eventuality of a Middle East crisis. At the same time, by not actually pursuing a clear nuclear path such as the North Korean one, Iran will still continue to abide by the norms of the NPT and will not be threatened by ulterior multilateral actions against it. As it will be possible to see in the next section, the Iranian “surge capacity” deterrence has a strong link with the outcome of its bilateral efforts, which present a different theoretical framework.


Bilateral Efforts

It is very interesting to notice that the recent Iranian unilateral nuclear efforts were also meant to lay a better ground for bilateral nuclear negotiations. Indeed, bilateral nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West (mainly the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain), have been the cornerstone in solving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Before the recently achieved JCPOA agreements, however, bilateral nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West could be summarized as a decade of failed encounters. The reasons of such failure are mainly two.

Firstly, Iran thinks that the West has always made unrealistic offers to solve the nuclear crisis. “Despite the negotiating parties committing to a deal based on the NPT, the fact is that what the world powers demand from Iran goes beyond the treaty and, most likely, as a member state of the NPT Iran would not accept being singled out and discriminated against” (Mousavian, 2014, p.532). Indeed, even when Iran tried to push an agreement just with the EU-3 in 2003-2005, it was very close in accepting both limitations on its enrichment process and on its enrichment cap to five per cent for two years (IAEA, 2004). However, the negotiations failed because of US pressure against a treaty that was too favorable for Iran.

Hardcore views of the United States on everything related to the Iranian nuclear program are not the only factors that have delayed a final comprehensive bilateral agreement. Indeed, the second reason that has led to a decade of failed negotiations is the constant threat of use of force that United States has used in trying to dictate a favorable agreement. “Rather than genuine diplomacy, the West has long focused on coercion in its approach—sanctions, sabotage, and assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists” (Mousavian, 2014, p.533). Therefore, in response to such coercive measures, Iran thought to continue its enrichment program, holding the idea that negotiations could be finalized only on an equal basis.

The reason why the West and Iran have finally reached a deal is because both parties were open to discussion and wanted to use the deal as a first sign of rapprochement. In fact, President Obama, by abandoning the coercive policymaking that has accompanied the negotiations for more than ten years, has finally “offered to negotiate with Iran without preconditions over its nuclear ambitions” (Entessar, 2009, p26). On the other side, Iran has finally agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment process for fifteen years in exchange of the comprehensive lift of all economic sanctions. Furthermore, whether they like it or not, Iran and the United States are natural allies in the current war against ISIS. Using the deal to implement further military cooperation between the two countries would pave the way to ultimately improve US-Iran relations.

The recent JCPOA was welcomed by all parties not without suspicion (especially from the United States); however it also showed that, at the multilateral level, nothing has been done to arrive at a comprehensive solution. Indeed, the bilateral nuclear efforts could be framed as a power-based effort mainly forced by the muscular unilateralism of the United States. Even when Iran was willing to engage into negotiations with the EU-3 alone, it was hampered by the strong position taken by the US against the agreement that the parties were almost reaching. Furthermore, the conditions that the US wanted to impose were strictly against the normative rules of the NPT, under which Iran, although concealing some of its nuclear facilities, was precisely following. Iran has always appealed to norm-based claims to highlight that the conditions to the agreement offered by the United States were against the norm setting of the NPT, endangering the possibility of future multilateral efforts.

As it will be possible to see in the next part of the section, Iran has exploited multilateral efforts to curb nuclear threats and to highlight its position within the international community.


Multilateral Efforts

The Iranian nuclear crisis, as controversial as it is, has never been negotiated at the multilateral level exactly because it has been mainly handled with bilateral negotiations. In reality, this US approach in settling nonproliferation shocks with bilateral agreements could endanger the nonproliferation regime. Indeed, by focusing only on solving the Iranian nuclear crisis at the bilateral level, the United States should look also at what other would-be proliferators would respond to such extraordinary concessions on Iran. As also Mousavian argues, “The main risk of proliferation no longer comes from Iran, but from those countries that do not recognize the legitimacy of that deal and that could be tempted to follow the Israeli approach of security through nuclear weaponization” (Mousavian, 2014, p.534). Indeed, if Iran gets this special treatment, why should not other would-be proliferators be treated in the same manner?

This almost exaggerated emphasis on bilateral nuclear efforts by the United States might, therefore, endanger the NPT by showing that it is no longer able to set norms and alter states’ behavior. Iran, on the other hand, has shown more interest in dealing with such problems at the global level. Unlike the United States, Tehran is a member of all the WMD conventions, including the NPT, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and it is also a signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (Arms Control Association, 2015). In addition to this, Iran, has been one of the firmest advocates of a Middle East Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ). “The seeds planted for creating such a zone date back to 9 December 1974, when the General Assembly passed an Iranian and Egyptian resolution calling for a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ)” (Mousavian, 2014, p.539). Obviously, with the Iran-Iraq War and the use of chemical weapons, which killed almost 100,000 Iranians, Tehran has strengthened its position against WMDs within the international fora. It is not a surprise that, alongside with Russia, Iran has been proactively working in convincing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join the CWC and to initially avoid another US invasion in the Middle East (Stout, 2013).

Therefore, Iran was basically forced to reach a solution for its own “limbo” via the bilateral agreements offered by the United States. Indeed, in order to show the weaknesses of the muscular unilateral approach of the US, Iran has always preferred to engage in multilateral negotiations and with the EU-3 bilateral negotiation. The United States, on its side, could have tried to foster a multilateral effort – i.e. a Security Council Resolution forcing the parties involved to find a global solution to the problem – especially in 2002, when the world discovered the secret Iranian nuclear facilities.

Norm-based theorists, especially prudential realists, would argue that Iran has always tried to push for multilateralism to weaken US unilateralism and avoid strategic loneliness in the international arena. Even in the light of the recent JCPOA, it is possible to claim that Iran, at least in the near future, has opted for the lifting of sanctions to re-establish good relations with the international community rather than pursuing a stronger power-based nuclear strategy.

Whether the recently established JCPOA will be successful or another failure similar to the US-North Korean Agreed Framework can only be argued in the next years. What emerges in the short run, however, can be analyzed in the concluding section.




5  Conclusions

In this study, I tried to understand what solutions the international community has to curb the threats emerging from the second nuclear age. The hypothesis that I emphasized through each section of this work was that, in the current status quo, states find themselves in a “nuclear strategy limbo” between nuclear disarmament and nuclear proliferation, exalting the duality of every of nuclear strategy.

The first section provided theoretical approaches to understand the historical roots of the “limbo”. With the end of Cold War nuclear deterrence and the rise of a much more complex “multipolar nuclear geometry”, new threats emerged (i.e. nuclear terrorism, rogue states, Asian proliferation shocks), against which the classic nuclear deterrence strategy could no longer give strategic reassurances on. As a consequence, new theoretical models were advanced to unveil the reasons why states should or should not pursue a nuclear weapons program. However, these two models, namely power-based and norm-based theories are still not sufficient in providing a universal theoretical model similar to the one emerged during the Cold War and its bipolar order. Nowadays, in the absence of a clear theoretical framework, states find themselves unable to develop a solid nuclear strategy that aims either towards nuclear disarmament or towards nuclear proliferation, which I tried to show in the second section by looking at nuclear policymaking.

The second section showed that, when it comes to nuclear strategies, states adopt a form of “nuclear dualism” which strengthens my hypothesis of the “limbo”. Indeed, both at the unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral level, states almost always engage in nuclear efforts that could be analyzed as nonproliferation and disarmament trendsetter at the same time. The examples of the minimum deterrent strategy, bilateral nuclear agreements, and multilateral negotiations within the framework of the NPT show that states opt for policies that do not expose themselves neither towards a clear disarmament policy nor towards unrestrained nuclear proliferation.

The first two sections provided the framework for understanding the environment of the most prominent topic in nuclear proliferation: the Iranian nuclear crisis. The history of nuclear Iran shows that the Islamic Republic has been unable to develop a clear nuclear strategy towards either nuclear proliferation or disarmament. The “limbo” emerged because Tehran has had valid strategic reasons to both pursue and abandon its nuclear weapons program. As a result, the Iranian “nuclear strategy limbo” took the form of a “surge capacity” nuclear deterrence, meaning that Iran aims at creating “the know-how, the infrastructure and the personnel needed to develop a nuclear military capacity within a short time without actually doing so” (qtd. in Milani, McFaul, & Diamond, 2005, p.6). An example of the Iranian “limbo” is Tehran’s willingness to achieve a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone while enriching uranium up to twenty percent. Similarly, Iran pushed for a multilateral solution to the crisis with the 2003 EU-3 negotiations, but it failed to ratify the Additional Protocols of the IAEA before the recent JCPOA.

The comprehensive plan of action itself does not embody the solution to the Iranian “limbo”; it just temporarily freezes the crisis. I hope that this research could show that the JCPOA is not the ultimate model to follow to thwart the threats of the second nuclear age and to let states escape the “nuclear strategy limbo”. I hold the assumption that this research field requires much more scholarly work especially in highlighting the shortcomings of a now obsolete Cold War nuclear thinking and the role of the elites in nuclear mythmaking.

I firmly believe that the second nuclear age threats can be thwarted with nuclear disarmament, which is far from being a utopian project. Indeed, the international community already has the means to reach this goal, which is much more easily achievable and secure than the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons. Much of the hope in achieving this goal lies in the hands of the Review Conferences of the NPT, which can obliterate the differences between Nuclear Weapons and Non-Nuclear Weapons States and set a binding agenda for disarmament.


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