For many this November, anticipating the outcomes of soon-concluding nuclear negotiations with Iran seems impossible. The idea that we could only predict the resolution (or lack thereof) with a “coin toss” is complicated by this video by Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares fund.

This concept of the interdependence of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament brings new questions about the role of nuclear countries in ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The questions we have been asking so far of the U.S. government and other countries at the table have been about how to deal with the talks themselves (how to create a mutually beneficial and binding agreement, how to ensure that Iran keeps its commitments as a signatory of the NPT, what to insist upon or where to compromise). What has perhaps been lacking from the conversation are questions about how the United States and other countries with nuclear weapons can create a global atmosphere where nuclear non-proliferation makes nuke-less countries feel more (rather than less) safe. According to Cirincione’s portrayal of nuclear politics, this safety comes from the other side of the coin—disarmament.

Despite President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to nuclear reduction (his Nobel Prize award was marked for his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”), the White House has not effectively signaled to the rest of the world that the United States is taking any serious steps towards reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. In fact, the Pentagon recently announced it intentions of vast increases in nuclear spending. Most of this spending will be on improving the safety of nuclear equipment and training the security forces in charge of them, but the failure to attach reductions in nuclear arms to the expensive nuclear development plan means the measures signal something very different to the rest of the world.

In an article in People’s Daily (the official daily newspaper of the Chinese government), Wen Xian Wang Hongjie calls the program a “new policy on revitalizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and implies that it is linked to disappointments in the outcomes of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article ends cynically– “It is ironic that on the one hand the American government is taking vigorous action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while on the other hand it is preparing for a complete overhaul of its own nuclear arsenal.”

The implications of these type of viewpoints are considerable. If the United States is not showing adequate commitments to nuclear reductions but is rather (in the eyes of many other countries) increasing its own nuclear armament, the prospects for wider disarmament and non-proliferation may be severely reduced. Regardless of the true intentions of the nuclear re-vamp, the fact that it was not linked to reductions in nuclear arsenals has led to many parts of the world perceiving the actions as projected increases in U.S. nuclear power. Cirincione’s coin flip, from non-proliferation to disarmament to non-proliferation and so on, can work in reverse. As nuclear powers like the United States are seen to be increasing their arsenals, their nuclear neighbors may do the same to maintain the balance of power, and non-nuclear countries in an increasingly nuclear world may face greater security pressure to develop nuclear weaponry.

As well as asking how the United States and other nuclear countries are using negotiations to keep Iran committed to non-proliferation, should we be asking what they have done outside of the negotiation room to make an agreement possible? Is it time to flip the coin?

 

Bring some of these questions into your classroom with Choices’ FREE Teaching with the News lesson, Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue . The lesson features videos from outstanding scholars, Jo-Ann Hart, Trita Parsi, and Joe Cirincione and includes one of Choices’ hallmark Options Role Plays. View this and other Teaching with the News lesson plans here.

 

The TWTN lesson is a great supplement to these full-length units:

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

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Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution

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The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy  (new edition coming soon!)

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