Is Obama Pushing Iran Toward Nuclear Weapons?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama released the latest Nuclear Posture Review, which sets guidelines for nuclear weapons policy for the next five to ten years. Though Obama last year said he was serious about moving toward "a world without nuclear weapons," this policy statement is not so bold. It does not declare that the United States will not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. Arms control advocates had hoped that Obama would adopt a no-first-use policy, as a confidence-building measure that would encourage other countries to get serious about nuclear non-proliferation. With this review, Obama has eschewed dramatic steps and taken what most analysts have characterized as a middle course. Here's how the Washington Post puts it:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

This leads to an obvious question: is Obama providing Iran even more incentive to develop nuclear weapons? Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who each have held various national security positions in the US government, including stints at the National Security Council, believe that it does. They write:

We believe that this is a bad decision with regard to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but will leave it to others to discuss those dimensions of the matter.  We are absolutely certain that it is a horrible decision with regard to America’s Iran policy. We have said and written on many occasions that we believe Iran is establishing the foundations for what some analysts call a nuclear weapons "option," but, in our assessment, has not taken a decision to move all the way to overt weaponization.  (And, Iranian officials at the highest levels, including Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have said repeatedly that the Islamic Republic does not seek and does not want nuclear weapons.) One of the several reasons we oppose U.S. military action against Iran over the nuclear issue is because we believe such action would increase the chances that Tehran would decide to weaponize its nuclear capabilities. In the same vein, making Iran a potential U.S. nuclear target will remove at least some of Tehran’s incentives for restraint in developing its own nuclear capabilities. If Iran, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, will face the threat of nuclear "first use" by the United States, why shouldn’t Tehran proceed to the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons?

The document does signal a departure from Bush-Cheney policies by focusing on terrorists and rogue states as the main nuclear threats. It won't remove nuclear weapons from constant alert status—another step arms controllers have looked for—but it will provide the president more time to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons. It also cuts down the number of scenarios in which the US government might use nuclear weapons. It's not a radical policy shift, yet the neocons are blasting it anyway. AEI's Tom Donnelly gripes, "The release of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is part of a larger set of policies that look to the past rather than preparing the United States for the nuclear future." But it certainly would be counter-productive if Obama's hawkish Iran loophole pushes Iran further toward embracing nuclear weapons.

UPDATE: I asked Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear nonproliferation expert, for his take on the Nuclear Posture Review. His review emphasizes what's in the glass, rather than what's not. He emailed me this note:

This is a big, positive step forward. It could go further, faster, but it is the best we can hope for under the circumstances. It is a solid, pragmatic document that strives to be transformational. It is transformation in two aspects: It re-orients the US nuclear forces away from massive retaliations and towards today's threats of nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states. It orients US policy towards dramatically fewer weapons and greatly reduced roles. It is a transitional document, from 1940s weapons and Cold War strategies, towards the elimination of the one weapon that can destroy our nation.

Here in more analytical terms is what I think:

The Nuclear Posture Review will move this country down a rational, common sense path to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat from nuclear weapons. It calls for the further reduction of global nuclear stockpiles by putting all types of nuclear warheads--deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical--on the negotiating table in the months and years ahead.

First, Obama and his Administration have narrowed the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons to reflect the post 9-11 security environment by prioritizing the prevention of nuclear terrorism, a first in the NPR.

The NPR also reflects the general wisdom of the foreign policy establishment that the U.S. does not need to maintain an inordinate stockpile of nuclear weapons. It can safely reduce numbers, while still protecting the United States and its allies.

One of the major changes is the declaratory policy that states that the fundamental purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterrence of nuclear use by others. This is a vast improvement over the last NPR and a logical decision. No nation wields a conventional, chemical or biological force that the United States cannot counter with its overwhelmingly superior conventional forces.

The NPR also clarifies and updates U.S. pledges of non-use toward nonnuclear weapon states in good standing with their nonproliferation obligations.

In a major victory for all those opposed to expanding nuclear arsenals, the NPR also rules out the pursuit of new nuclear weapons, which independent scientists have deemed unnecessary to maintain the effectiveness of the remaining arsenal, or new nuclear weapons capabilities.

While I believe that the NPR could have gone further in declaring that the sole use of nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of other nuclear weapons, this NPR moves us in that direction and is a vast improvement over the Bush Administration's NPR.

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