On July 14, an agreement was reached between Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union concerning the Iranian nuclear program. The deal reduces the number of operating centrifuges by almost 70 percent, calls for the plutonium reactor at Arak to be redesigned so as not to produce fissile materials, and sets up an inspection regime. Reactions among the political establishment have been mostly negative, with all Senate Republicans now opposing the agreement while Democrats are more mixed. President Obama has threatened to veto a Congressional rejection of the agreement, so a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress will be needed to overturn the agreement.
Most libertarians who have weighed in on the agreement are either in favor of it or ambivalent. The case that no one, libertarian or otherwise, has dared to make is that the agreement is bad not because it does too little to stop Iran, but because it does too much. Let us attempt to make that case.
Of course, the pragmatic libertarian case for nuclear proliferation in general applies to this particular case. When a nation state gains nuclear capability, the likelihood that it will be involved in a total war and/or be subject to invasion by a foreign power drops dramatically, as this has never happened thus far. Accordingly, having a nuclear deterrent also lessens the need for conventional military forces, meaning that the size of government budgets can shrink. And in the long run, nuclear weapons will need to proliferate to the point where private individuals can acquire them as a deterrent against existing states when establishing stateless communities. There are several concerns raised by those who seek to keep Iran out of the nuclear club, none of which withstand scrutiny because they require Iran to behave in exactly the opposite manner of every other nuclear state, especially those with highly questionable rulership. These concerns are that Iran would have a first-use policy, might hand nuclear weapons to terrorist groups like Hezbollah or Hamas, might be emboldened in its foreign policy, or might set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The problem with believing that Iran would have a first-use policy is that Israel has far more nuclear weapons than Iran will, meaning that destruction would be mutually assured. The rulers of Iran want to survive and continue ruling, just like any other rulers. They do engage in hateful, religiously extreme rhetoric, but one must remember that religion in the hands of statists is just another tool for controlling the masses, not something that the rulers try to obey to the letter at all times. Their more measured behavior, such as refraining from blocking the Strait of Hormuz, is a more useful guide than their words. The problems with believing that Iran would supply nuclear weapons to terrorists are that the possibility of being hoisted by one’s own petard, the high risk of being found out, and the high cost of building nuclear weapons mean that governments have every reason not to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists. The potential for terrorists to take nuclear weapons from Iran is quite low, as Iran has stronger national security than most other states in the region. The problem with believing that having nuclear weapons would embolden Iran is that all nuclear powers except the United States have become more cautious abroad after getting the bomb, and there is no evidence to suggest that Iran will behave in a manner similar to American imperialism. It is also ahistorical to suggest that an Iranian nuclear weapon would lead other states in the region to seek their own nuclear weapons, but even if this were to happen, it will be argued later that this result would be positive.
There are several additional reasons beyond the standard case for why it may be beneficial for Iran to join the nuclear club. Currently, Israel is the only state in the region known to possess nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons state that is unchecked by another exists nowhere else in the world at present; India and Pakistan check each other, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China check each other, and North Korea is checked by the United States, Russia, and China. Unchecked nuclear weapons states have a dangerous history from the beginning; Truman was able to use nuclear weapons in anger against Japan because there was no threat of retaliation in kind. It is clear from Israel’s past strikes on Iraq and Syria that it intends to maintain this regional monopoly by force, and its ability to attack its neighbors with near-impunity creates a desire in its rivals to prevent this in the future. It is only a matter of time before some other state in the region gains nuclear capability, and if history is any guide, this will serve to balance an unbalanced situation and lead to less conflict.
Should Iran become a nuclear weapons state, the details may vary but three general outcomes are possible. One is that there will be peace through mutually assured destruction. Just as India and Pakistan each came to understand that challenging each other’s nuclear deterrent would be more dangerous than learning to live with it and signed a treaty in 1991 agreeing not to target each other’s nuclear facilities, Israel and Iran will be strongly incentivized to come to the same conclusion. Another is that there will be an uneasy direct peace, but Israel and Iran will fight each other through proxies, as the United States and Soviet Union did in Korea and Vietnam. This is already occurring in a sense, as Iran supplies arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. With a nuclear Iran, this sort of dynamic may continue as a stability-instability paradox. The final possibility is that of a nuclear exchange. This has never happened anywhere in the world and the rational self-interest of everyone involved suggests that this will not happen between Israel and Iran, but one cannot deny that the result of a nuclear exchange would be long-term peace in the Middle East, at least for those in the fallout zone.
The possibility that Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state would inspire other rulers in the area to acquire nuclear weapons of their own is raised as a dark specter by those who oppose Iranian nuclear weapons, but this could serve as an additional stabilizer if such a novel historical development were to occur. Iran has a Shia Muslim majority, while most other states in the region have a Sunni Muslim majority. If a Sunni state were also to acquire a nuclear deterrent as well, the likelihood of Sunnis being caught in a proxy war between Jews and Shiites decreases, as the proxies in other stability-instability paradoxes have not had nuclear weapons. The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias would also be disincentivized, as the cost of continuing to engage in it would become too high for all but the most extreme elements on both sides.
In conclusion, the fears about Iranian nuclear weapons are largely overblown and tend to stand athwart history and reason. A nuclear armed Iran is by no means benign, but neither is any other group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area and have such devastating capability. Despite all of the emotional fear-mongering to the contrary, the result is very likely to be a more peaceful and stable Middle East. As always, the primary enemy is the state itself, not the boogeyman du jour.