Home inSight The Politics of Nonproliferation Diplomacy

The Politics of Nonproliferation Diplomacy

Jonathan S. Tobin Winter 2009

Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of rogue governments that might use them to pursue dangerous agendas and undermine both peace and regional stability has been an American foreign policy priority for more than a generation. There is little disagreement in Washington and other Western democracies about the principle of nonproliferation. But the failure of the West to stymie the efforts of rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran illustrates the challenges of formulating and pursuing strategies that actually halt the spread of nuclear weapons. While the dilemmas are admittedly multifaceted, the politics of nonproliferation diplomacy have yielded an incoherent and ultimately unsuccessful American foreign policy.

Failing to Halt North Korea

While the concept of wider possession of nuclear weapons may be frightening in principle, the potential nuclear regimes in question add urgency to the discussion. The addition of North Korea to the roster of nuclear powers in the last decade, along with the potential of a nuclear Iran, has raised the pitch of the nonproliferation debate.

The paranoid instability of the North Korean regime has made its nuclear capability a worry for the past three American administrations. However, each administration has failed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear gambit. Diplomacy aimed at convincing or even bribing the regime to end its nuclear ambitions has repeatedly proven fruitless. While North Korea has acquiesced to occasional agreements promising an end to its nuclear drive, every accord has been a delay tactic that only strengthened their nuclear plans, not to mention an opportunity to expose their diplomatic partners to scorn.

The Threat of Iran

North Korea should have served as a sobering warning to Western nations seeking to halt Iran’s nuclear efforts. Washington, however, did not take heed. Our decision makers reasoned that there was plenty of time for diplomacy to work. After all, the Iranians initially appeared to be years away from getting the bomb. Moreover, Iran’s plentiful oil reserves made it an attractive candidate for development and investment projects, or other economic incentives to cooperate. For the same reasons, it was also more vulnerable to sanctions, especially if Tehran’s European trading partners joined in.

Another factor contributing to optimism about coercing the Iranians stemmed from the sense of unanimous purpose in the American political system. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to understand that a nuclear Iran could potentially imperil the United States and Europe, and could further destabilize moderate Arab nations in the Middle East. Moreover, Tehran’s vocal threats against the State of Israel ensured the formation of a formidable bipartisan coalition. Under these circumstances, optimists believed that nonproliferation efforts could not fail.

American concern deepened after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in 2005. Though the post of president in the Islamic Republic is subordinate to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad quickly became the most visible symbol of the regime. His espousal of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out the State of Israel added urgency to the nonproliferation debate. Indeed, the prospect of Ahmadinejad as the head of a nuclear power, not to mention the extremist religious beliefs he holds, reinforced the notion that an Iranian nuclear capability would be an existential threat to the Jewish state.

To make matters worse, the apocalyptic scenario is only one element of the Iranian threat. Iran has become a major player in the Israeli-Arab conflict via its terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. These bridgeheads give Iran a veto over any peace initiative, and constitute a standing threat to the surrounding Arab countries as well. The prospect of their sponsor going nuclear would strengthen these violent rejectionist groups, and potentially destabilize the entire region.

Indirect Engagement

With the understanding that Iranian hostility to the “Great Satan” (as the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dubbed the United States) might make it impossible for the Iranians to engage in diplomacy with American envoys, the George W. Bush administration outsourced its diplomatic efforts. Preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s team believed that our European allies could serve as better point men on the Iran issue.

U.S. hopes that the Iranian problem could be solved without their active involvement were soon shown to be illusory. The French and the Germans were sincere in their desire to stop Iran’s nuclear plans, but their economic ties to Tehran were a conflict of interest. They were far from enthusiastic about backing up their demands with a boycott or other measures that could halt the flow of energy into or out of the country. Actually, the diplomatic process achieved worse than nothing; the Iranians’ delaying tactics exploited European patience.

The Iranians had another reason to be confident about their ability to resist: support from both Russia and China. Moscow values Iran as a source of oil and a buyer of Russian weapons. Moreover, the foreign policy under President and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems to revolve around its desire to revive the glory of the Soviet Union and to undercut American power. China, too, views Iran as an important source of oil in its bid to become a superpower. Both powers can veto a United Nations Security resolution implementing sanctions against Iran. This is Tehran’s ace in the hole.

George W. Bush & Military Force

After the European initiative failed and analysts recognized that Iran was gaining ground in its efforts to create a nuclear device, Washington was left with only bad choices. Diplomacy had already failed. Strong international sanctions had the potential to bring a weak Iranian economy to its knees, but Russia and China rendered this option equally unlikely to succeed. At best, Washington could impose unilateral sanctions that would almost certainly fail to influence Iran’s behavior.

That left the possibility of the use of force. But, while President Bush said he would not take the military option off the table, it became increasingly obvious that there was little support for such an adventure inside the beltway. The United States was already saddled with two other wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new front in Iran would only stretch the U.S. military thin, and even complicate the other campaigns. The highly questionable National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in December 2007, claiming that Iran had abandoned its weapons program, effectively killed public support for an attack on Iran.

The outlook was equally grim for Israel. Given the fact that Iran’s nuclear facilities are subterranean, hardened, and dispersed, the Israelis held little hope of duplicating the success of their 1981 strike on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear facility. Moreover, given the fact that the airspace surrounding Iran (Iraq and Eastern Turkey) is controlled by the United States military, Israel assumed it would have to have explicit permission to attack. However, senior officials from the Bush administration indicated that the U.S. would not provide the IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) codes to support an Israeli raid.

Obama & Dialogue

The American disinclination to use force against Iran became more pronounced in January 2009 when Barack Obama took office. Though he spoke frequently during his electoral campaign about the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he was also open about his desire for dialogue with Tehran without preconditions. The new president believed that a willingness to consult with allies, talk with foes, and conciliate all comers was the only answer to America’s problems in the Middle East including Iran.

Obama made the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians a higher priority than Iran in the early months of his presidency. His aides actually argued that a policy of increased pressure on Israel might gain the trust of the Arab world and perhaps their support for future action on Iran. In the end, however, the heightened Arab expectations about American pressure on Israel only made the Palestinians more intransigent.

The Obama administration attempted to employ similar tactics to gain Russia’s cooperation on Iran. Obama attempted to gain Russian support for tougher Iran sanctions through appeasement. The White House repudiated missile defense treaties with both Poland and the Czech Republic, to which Moscow had previously objected. This strategy fell short of its objective; an appeased Russia was no more interested in sanctioning Iran than it had been before.

Complicating the Obama push for talks with Iran was the spectacle of that country’s contested July presidential election. After the Mullahs appeared to have stolen the vote to ensure Ahmadinejad’s re-election, supporters of his reformist opponent took to the streets, and were brutally suppressed by the Islamist regime’s paramilitary shock troops. While outrage boiled over around the world, and particularly in Western Europe, Obama remained cool. Rather than criticize Iran’s many human rights violations and challenge the legitimacy of the government in Tehran, Obama appeared more interested in keeping the lines of communication open.


This push for conciliation reached its peak on October 1, 2009, when Iranian and Western negotiators concluded an agreement in Geneva, Switzerland, requiring Iran to ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia for processing into fuel rods that would only have medical purposes. Though the agreement would not necessarily prevent non-peaceful Iranian nuclear initiatives, the accord appeared to diminish the voices of those still warning of the nuclear threat.

But as was the case with the diplomatic “successes” with North Korea, it soon became clear that the Geneva deal was just another Iranian delaying tactic. On October 29, Iranian officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they could not agree to a deal that their own negotiators had reached. No explanation was provided. Though Washington persisted in trying to revive the agreement by making it even more attractive to Tehran, the Iranians wouldn’t budge, insisting that all nuclear material stay in their hands.

With the use of force seemingly off the table, and with the West no closer to international sanctions, ten months of Obama’s engagement has failed. Iran has not changed its position. Indeed, Iran’s leaders do not feel compelled to choose between their nuclear ambitions and the safety or economic health of their nation. Just as repressive measures appear to have put down domestic challengers, encouraging the West’s belief in engagement appears to deflect foreign pressure on the nuclear issue.

Now What?

Though opinion is divided as to exactly how much time is left for the Iranians to complete their nuclear drive, the clock has not yet run out. If Obama finally arrives at the realization that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable, and could actually sink his presidency in a morass of foreign disasters, he can still prevent the worst-case scenario unfolding in Tehran. Though Russia and China continue to get in the way of international sanctions, Europe is taking a tougher stance on Iran these days. Obama might use his personal popularity to rally world opinion, and even push through some tough measures at home.

A final and concerted Western campaign to completely isolate Iran can still change the dynamic of the current standoff. The Iranian regime is weak. It lacks domestic support, and its economy remains unstable. What emboldens the Iranians is their belief that Western resolve to stop their nuclear plans is equally weak.

The president must realize that engagement has run its course. It is now time to prove to the Iranians the politics of nonproliferation diplomacy can yield tougher policies. Failing to do so could invite disaster.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, and a contributor to its blog, Contentions.