Iran’s Nuclear Program And The Incentives Created By U.S. Policy

George Will has come under criticism for pointing out what seems to be an undeniable fact.


There’s been some criticism on the right to comments that George Will made Sunday on Fox News Sunday regarding Iran, its nuclear weapons program, and what we can realistically expect to be able to do with regard to that program, and for the life of me I cannot see where the critics are coming from, or how they are able to ignore what seem to me to be some very basic truths about the world.

First, here’s the transcript of what Will said that raised the controversy:

WALLACE: All right. We got a little bit of time left and I want to talk about one of the other big developments this week and that is the extension of talks with Iran. I know, George, you have always been skeptical of negotiations with Iran, but I know that you’re also skeptical about any other alternative. Is this a good decision or not, to expand the talks till late November?

WILL: It’s fine to extend the talks, just so long as we’re planning to put in place containment and deterrence of a nuclear Iran. The fact is the United States policy has taught certain regimes the importance of having nuclear weapons. If Gadhafi had had them, he would still be in power. If Saddam Hussein had had them he would still be in power. The regime is in power in North Korea because it’s got them. I’m afraid U.S. policy has indeed given an incentive for people to develop nuclear weapons. And there’s no reason to believe that Iran is not going to get them and no reason to believe that we who deterred the Soviet Union for 45 years cannot contain and deter Iran.

WALLACE: So, that’s — what you think there’s going a play out. They are going to get the weapon, the nuclear weapon and we are going to have to contain them.

This isn’t a new argument on Will’s part, as he made much the same points in pair of columns written last year after the initial agreement that was reached between Iran and the so-called “P5+1” parties in Geneva, see here and here. Will’s basic argument then, as now, is three-fold. First, absent completely ridding Iran of any nuclear research program at all, which is simply not going to happen, there is very little that the West can do to stop the Islamic Republic from development weapons grade uranium or plutonium in the future if that’s what they want to do short of war. Second, negotiations will at best slow down this eventuality in the hope that there might be a change in government in Tehran that would lead to a change in policy, which seems unlikely since even so-called “moderates” in Iran are strongly in support of the country’s nuclear program. Finally, Will argues that Iran has learned a lesson from recent American policy; namely, that nations without nuclear weapons become targets for military intervention and other actions meant to undermine the ruling regime, while nations without nuclear weapons do not.  This fact, Will argues as other have, creates some rather obvious incentives for the leaders in Iran to not give up their nuclear program since it may be the one thing that ensures that they don’t become targets in some future war.

It would seem as though this final observation  would be axiomatic. In the nearly seventy years since the first atomic weapons were used, and the roughly 65 years since the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weapons, no regime with nuclear weapons has been overthrown by outside forces or been the target of a serious military attack. As Will notes, the last twenty years have given us the examples of Iraq and Libya, which did not have nuclear weapons and which gave up their WMD programs, and the counter-example of North Korea, which pushed forward to develop a nuclear weapons program despite near universal condemnation, and sanctions. One of those regimes is still standing and the other is not, and while there are many other factors involved in all three cases one cannot dismiss the idea that the presence or absence of nuclear weapons in each of these cases influenced how the rest of the world has responded. Similar evidence can be found in the case of India and Pakistan which, despite a few flare ups in tension since the two nations formally developed nuclear weapons, have not gone to war since they became nuclear powers.

Scott Johnson at Power Line, though, objects strenuously to what seems to be Will’s observation of a simple and undeniable fact:

What is Will up to? He implies that we bear some responsibility for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: “the United States has taught certain regimes the importance of having nuclear weapons.” Will’s reference to “certain regimes” in this context obviously includes Iran. The implicit point is that, having “taught” Iran the importance of having nuclear weapons, we lack standing to do something (something other than “containment” and “deterrence”) about it.

Will fleshes out his assertion regarding the American teaching by reference to American foreign policy. Iran’s nuclear weapons program — to borrow the trope from Reverend Wright, it’s a case of chickens coming home to roost. If only the United States had treated Saddam Hussein with greater forbearance rather than invading Iraq to unseat him, Iran apparently wouldn’t have learned the lesson of the importance of nuclear weapons.

The mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons, however, dates back to the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was still in power and North Korea was limited to conventional weapons. (The genesis of the mullahs’ secret nuclear weapons program dates to 1991, as the mullahs concluded that Saddam Hussein would not have been forced out of Kuwait by the United States and its allies if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons; this illustrates how Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would undermine “containment.”) Did Ronald Reagan teach the mullahs the importance of nuclear weapons? Ronnie, we hardly knew ye, I guess.

Johnson makes a good point when he notes that the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons pre-dates the events that Will talks about, but his argument does little to refute the central logic of Will’s point. In fact, I think it actually enhances it. In neither his comments on Sunday nor his November 2013 columns was Will arguing that Iran was motivated to the develop nuclear weapons solely in response to things like the war in Iraq, North Korea’s successful defiance of Western sanctions to develop its own program, or the fact that Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown mere years after he voluntary surrendered his rudimentary nuclear program to the United States and Britain. Instead, it’s obvious that what Will was trying to explain here are the factors that are motivating the Iranians in their current negotiations, and the respective fates of the leaders of those three nations is most certainly something that they have taken note of over the past several years. Along with all of the other reasons that a nation might want to develop nuclear weapons, these facts are obviously playing a role in how the Iranians are approaching these negotiations and just how far they might be willing to go in conceding parts of that program to the West. To ignore these facts strikes me as ignoring reality.

Johnson’s colleague Paul Mirenghoff makes a slightly different argument:

What could teach Iran the importance of not having nukes? Probably nothing at this juncture.

But there is evidence that a decade ago, U.S. policy may well have made Iran think twice about obtaining them. In a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the CIA concludedthat Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (when the U.S. invaded Iraq), and that program remained frozen.

The second conclusion, that Iran’s nuclear program was frozen as of 2007, is highly dubious. But the finding that the program was halted for a time in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is plausible. And we know that Qaddafi halted his nuclear program at that time in response to our action in Iraq.

In sum, adversaries like Iran have compelling reasons to develop nuclear weapons that have nothing to do with “United States policy.” But our policy — that is, our military action, not our diplomacy — can help persuade our adversaries not to proceed down that road.

This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should start wars for that purpose. It does mean that the credible threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear capacity (whether by Israel, the U.S., or both) is the only policy tool that might deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And military action itself is the only policy tool that might prevent them from doing so if they aren’t deterred.

Whether the U.S. should be willing to take military action — willingness being the prerequisite for a credible threat — or should instead be content to rely on a policy of “containment and deterrence” is a difficult question. Specious claims that the U.S. has “taught” certain regimes the value of having nuclear weapons are the enemy of clear thinking about that question.

Even assuming for the moment that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the prime motivation behind Iran’s apparent freeze in its nuclear program, it’s unclear at this point that threatening additional military force would really have much of an impact going forward. As numerous analyses over recent years have shown, it’s now believed that most crucial parts of Iran’s nuclear program have been moved to locations that, if not immune from military attack at least sufficiently shielded that an attack would do little more than set their program back a few years at the most. At the same time, such an attack is also only likely to increase the position of the hardliners inside Iran and make it more difficult to negotiate on this issue in the future. In other words, U.S. policy would have again taught them the lesson that the best protection against an attack from outside is to have nuclear weapons.

As I’ve noted before, unless you ascribe to the somewhat irrational view of Iran that many people on the right tend to have, there is no reason to believe that the same type of containment that worked during the Cold War would not work with a nuclear armed Iran. Yes, it would not be the most ideal situation in the best of all possible worlds, but the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle a long time ago and it seems foolish to think we can put it back in there.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    The only way to put the genie back in the bottle is to eliminate nukes altogether…something important to both Reagan and Obama …but Republican chicken hawks, of course, are not interested in.

    “We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”
    Ronald Reagan, Inaugural Address, 1985
    “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
    Ronald Reagan, 1984 State of the Union
    “My central arms control objective has been to reduce substantially, and ultimately to eliminate, nuclear weapons and rid the world of the nuclear threat. The prevention of the spread of nuclear explosives to additional countries is an indispensable part of our efforts to meet this objective. I intend to continue my pursuit of this goal with untiring determination and a profound sense of personal commitment.”
    Ronald Reagan, March 25, 1988 Message to Congress on NPT
    “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
    Ronald Reagan, from Reagan’s Secret War by Martin and Annelise Anderson

  2. gVOR08 says:

    I think you wanted a “not” in the middle of the last graph.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A couple of points:

    Iran’s nuclear program has become something of a point of national pride (like our space program used to be). To give it up in it’s entirety would shame the leadership and show “weakness.”

    2nd, the sanctions are having a real bite on their economy. Hence their willingness to negotiate.

    3rd, Iran has a large westward leaning percentage of it’s populace that is not at all happy with it’s inability to get the latest iphone. Or to paraphrase Bill McClellan, “Jeans and Cokes, beat bombs and bullets every time.”

    Lastly, they really don’t need nuclear weapons. They are in a position to cut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf anytime they want. Imagine what the world’s economy would look like by the time we got that oil flowing again.

    Iran is not N Korea in any way shape or form. While the similarities are there on the surface, it is dangerous and simplistic to draw too close a parallel between the two.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    I fail to see – short of bombing Iranian facilities – how the United States or any other country can prevent a sovereign country, one that has adequate human and natural resources, from creating either/or a nuclear energy or a nuclear weapons program.

    George Will has a view of American foreign policy that reminds me of the Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cartoon, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue.” It is a narcissistic conceit that we (America) can may endlessly pull levers that determine events everywhere in the world. This view inevitably leads us to constant (often misguided) interventions around the world.

  5. @gVOR08:

    Yes. Fixed.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: And I will point out that I too have thanked Bush and his “Axis of Evil” speech for the nuclear programs of Iran and N Korea. I am quite sure the events are connected, just not in the same way for Iran as they are for NK.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    I think this is very complex. It is well known that Israel has nukes and I’m sure this makes Iran nervous but perhaps even more important they are fearful that Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia will acquire them. In his sequel to Ender’s game Orson Scott Card talks about a nuclear war in the mid east..

  8. DrDaveT says:


    Lastly, they really don’t need nuclear weapons. They are in a position to cut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf anytime they want. Imagine what the world’s economy would look like by the time we got that oil flowing again.

    Yes, but without nukes, Iran’s ability to shut of the oil is like the Queen’s Veto in the UK — you get to use it once.

    I think Will has it right. History teaches clearly that if you have nukes you can behave almost as badly as you like, and if you don’t you might get invaded or occupied or reorganized or split into little pieces at any random time, even if you’re oil-wealthy. Absent some seriously heavyweight allies in ironclad treaties, no sane stable regime would NOT pursue a nuclear weapons program, as things stand today.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll give you another example: if Ukraine had held onto its Soviet-era nukes they’d still own Crimea.

    The only carrot we can possibly offer Iran is a non-aggression treaty combined with some sort of regional treaty regime that would end all nuclear development in the ME. Good luck getting that through the Senate.

    The sticks we have are necessarily bigger than people would like to see deployed. There’s no hole so deep we can’t get at it, that’s nonsense, but the getting at it part would be staggeringly violent, quite possibly nuclear.

    We and Iran were once allies, and should be again. They are more advanced, sophisticated, pro-western and tolerant than our so-called ally, Saudi Arabia. At this point in history our problems are more with the Sunni powers than the Shia. Al Qaeda is not Iranian, it’s Saudi and Yemeni and Pakistani. Iran could be a powerful ally against Sunni extremism.

    By the way, the essential screw-up vis a vis nuclear Iran was not the invasion of Iraq, as much as I’d love to blame George W. Bush. The original screw-up was allowing Pakistan to go nuclear. That’s where we should have drawn the line. That program began under Richard Nixon’s watch, proceeded through Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr., and reached its end point under Bill Clinton. Four Republicans and two Democrats let that madness develop. Thanks to them there’s already a Sunni bomb, and it’s right next door to Iran.

    You want to worry? Worry about the crumbling, corrupt, incompetent, unstable, fanatic-ridden mess that is Pakistan. There is a whole lot more crazy in Pakistan.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You want to worry? Worry about the crumbling, corrupt, incompetent, unstable, fanatic-ridden mess that is Pakistan. There is a whole lot more crazy in Pakistan.

    Agreed, Persia/Iran has not attacked anyone for over a century.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @DrDaveT: You have a point.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Persia/Iran has not attacked anyone for over a century.

    Indeed. Their track record as a rational actor is pretty solid. The enmity between the US & Iran is a historic mistake for both parties.

  13. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We and Iran were once allies, and should be again. They are more advanced, sophisticated, pro-western and tolerant than our so-called ally, Saudi Arabia.

    Absolutely right. Our foreign policy has been atrocious for decades and skewed too much to the Saudi and Gulf emirates. We had Iran on our side in the aftermath of 9/11 and they were helping us in Afganistan against the Taliban and pro-Taliban Pakistanis. Then President Bush opened his mouth and put Iran in the Axis of Evil. We are still paying for those loose words.

  14. JohnMcC says:

    Possibly worth some mention is that the Iranian Mullahs have claimed that possession of nuclear weapons is un-Islamic and that they have no intention of building them. Compare and contrast with N Korea, Saddam Hussein, Col Quadafi, Ukraine, and most particularly with the failed state we call Pakistan.

  15. An amazing, yet hardly surprising, aspect of the Power Line gang’s response is that they seem allergic to the notion that US policy plays a role in the bad/undesirable behavior of other states. Perhaps they are just wanting to deflect a criticism they feel is leveled at Bush, but it also smacks of grossly simplistic view of the world and the US (yes, shocking, I know).

    Given that the bulk of world politics since bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (who did that again?) global politics has been shaped by power relationships drawn in terms of nuclear weapons. Further, there is little doubt that states have made military choices for decades predicated on whether nuclear weapons could come into play. Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran are all just some of the more recent actors to be part of this story.

    And yes: US policy has been an important part of how the current global power system works–for good and for ill (as should be obvious, quite frankly). So yes, US policy has helped shape Iranian desire for nukes (although it is far from the sole cause). Of course, US policy in Iran in 1953 (and after) also helped lead to the 1979 Revolution and the current regime in power, if we are keeping score.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Of course, US policy in Iran in 1953 (and after) also helped lead to the 1979 Revolution and the current regime in power, if we are keeping score.

    Yes indeed most people don’t realize that. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected secular prime minster of Iran to protect the interests of what was later to become BP. The Shah was hated by a majority of Iranians and really nothing more than a CIA puppet. A good read on the Shah’s final years is We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran.

  17. RKS says:

    Reading the comments, made me very happy to see there are many people in the world that do not like war. PERIOD. There is no reason for Government of Iran to build N.Bomb, but research and power plants are totally different. Iran exporting electricity to all neighboring countries, yes they do, IEA annual report. How many times have heard, 3 months, 6 months…… for Iran to make bomb, I am sure everyone have heard that in the past 10 years, one too many times. So what stopped them? Iranian are very clever, yes it is matter of national pride to have research and development and manufacturing fuel for power plants to sell electricity, but for weapon, they don’t need it, just look back and see what happen to Iraq, we lost over a million people, but we stood our ground and our land. the other argument is, there is no benefit in having N Bomb. If we the USA wanted to drop bomb on Iranian, we could have done it 1981, or 1980 to 1988 when the world supplied then our puppet Saddam. They even supply him with chemical weapon and he lost, and no one said a word to condemn him. Yes, the Iranian have learned how to work around it, after all ancient civilization, our history has seen many of these atrocities. However, this time we, the USA, need them on our side and one person mentioned, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places in the Middle east become hot spot and The USA can not be able to trust those tyrants, to be on their side as you heard last summer the rant of Saudi regime

  18. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    While Will’s realpolitik view is a refreshing change from some of his other foreign policy ideas, the idea that

    The regime is in power in North Korea because it’s got them

    is mind-numbingly simplistic. That part really left me gobsmacked.

    Then I realized I was reading things George Will believes…

  19. Barry says:

    “The mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons, however, dates back to the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was still in power and North Korea was limited to conventional weapons.”

    In other words, when the West was backing Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran.