Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. In its wake was a small grouping of nuclear-armed countries possessing a huge stockpile of weaponry and delivery systems. These countries had few functioning institutions, serious money issues, and lots of uncertainty.
The story of how the U.S. stepped in to manage the aftermath of the fall of the Soviets is remarkable. It’s by no means flawless, but by and large the push to establish embassies and diplomatic relations happened with relative ease, and created, with few exceptions, warm and collaborative relations with most of the post-Soviet states.
The U.S. was the first country to recognize and establish an embassy in Kazakhstan, one of those nuclear-armed post-Soviet states. At an event run by The Atlantic Council on Tuesday, several Kazakh officials and U.S. ambassadors warmly recalled those early days, scrambling to set up institutions, establish protocols, and learn how to function.
Universally, the Americans – retired ambassadors, current and retired assistant secretaries of state, and senior scholars – praised Kazakhstan’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons. It’s no small matter: As the only nuclear-armed Muslim country at the time, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev could have chosen to strike out as a nuclear-armed state and received support and funding from the Middle East or Pakistan. Nazarbayev does indeed deserve credit for making the decision, along with Ukraine and Belarus to denuclearize. But it wasn’t a purely altruistic decision.
The collapse of the USSR also coincided with the passage of the Soviet Threat Reduction Act, co-sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. Over the next year or so, the STRA was expanded and renamed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act. This provided a big chunk of money to support denuclearization initiatives in the former Soviet Union – money that Kazakhstan eagerly accepted in return for allowing the U.S. to remove, dismantle, or otherwise neutralize the nuclear weapons and weapons platforms in Kazakh territory.
While both Ukraine and Belarus took longer to dismantle their nukes than Kazakhstan, they still did so under U.S. funding and support. In a very real sense, the U.S. presented the former Soviet Union with generous funding and early recognition as sovereign states in return for giving up their nuclear weapons. It was a masterful act of statecraft.
So why not try something similar for Iran?
Contrary to the popular myth that Iran is run by evil overlords bent on global chaos, Tehran’s nuclear program is most simply explained through the classic security dilemma. This is an old way of thinking conceiving the challenges inherant to international relations: both national weakness and national strength can be perceived as provocative by other states. So if a hostile country is relatively weak, like Iran, its government can try to gain leverage. States that prefer the status quo, like the U.S. and the countries of the EU, are threatened by a weak state strengthening itself.
The introduction of nuclear weapons into Iran’s strategic calculus is worrying for many reasons: states can miscalculate, and more nuclear-armed countries increases the risk of accidental nuclear events. When coupled with Iran’s hostile relations with not just the west but several states in the Middle East, fears of what a nuclear-armed Iran would mean for global security are perfectly justified.
The trick is how one responds to that fear. Responding bluntly or with force only drives home to the Iranians how desperately they need to become stronger to as to resist or survive an attack.The Iranian nuclear program is the best way they have of deterring any attack, as no nuclear armed state, especially a western one, is eager or even very willing to attack another nuclear armed state.
The international community has tried to use threats and sanctions to coerce the Iranian government into giving up its weapons program. It’s failed. What the international community hasn’t tried is incentives – real incentives with dollar figures and new international agreements to back them up.
A Nunn-Lugar Act for Iran would involve some politically sensitive compromises: it would involve the U.S. government recognizing the current regime in Tehran as legitimate and establish formal diplomatic relations. It would also provide a large assistance package to fund the dismantling of the weapons program, along with other alternative programs for power generation and national defense (to include reciprocal training of military officers). And it could even establish a formal non-aggression pact between Washington and Tehran, to ameliorate Iranian fears of U.S. aggression. Each one of these pillars faces steep resistance in the U.S., but they also represent a win-win way to help defuse tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Obviously, the Iranians would have to agree to such an arrangement. It’s possible there is too much mistrust for such an idea to have any real chance of working. But it’s also never been tried. Rather than trying to replicate the successful denuclearization of the former Soviet states, the international community has instead tried isolation and threats. It’s time for a new way forward.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.