Nuclear Pakistan vs. Nuclear Iran: There's No U.S. Double Standard

Image: DVIDSHUB/Public domain

Washington isn’t playing favorites.

Observers have been particularly puzzled to understand why the United States considers the Islamic Republic of Iran a threat and why, therefore, it is unlikely to give up its quest to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

There has been enormous debate among scholars that the reaction of the United States—as one of the guardians of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to Iran’s weaponization efforts and its breaking of the NPT rules has been entirely different from its approach to other proliferators, Pakistan in particular. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan’s long-suspected work on nuclear weapons, revealed by five simultaneous underground nuclear-weapons tests, introduced a new element of volatility into the region. However, regardless of some modest criticism and short-lived sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress, Pakistan’s proliferation was almost universally accepted. In contrast, Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons triggered tremendous anxiety and unprecedented efforts by Washington to roll it back.

This article posits that a number of factors were the source of these differences. First, and on a theoretical level, the debate in Washington addressed the question of whether rogue countries like Iran are rational enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Pakistan was never considered an “irrational” and “messianic” state like Iran, but regarded as a country with a certain degree of Cold War–type nuclear rationality. Unlike the Pakistani case, many analysts and policymakers have questioned Iran’s rationality, and the reliability of deterrence in the case of the Iranian leadership. They warn that the regime operates in a manner that deviates from the principles of rationality that underlay nuclear deterrence, which guided the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, thus rendering the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine invalid.

According to these analysts, the Iranians are an “apocalyptic,” “crazy” or “messianic regime,” and one cannot “bet on their rationality.” Consequently, nuclear weapons in the hands of “irrational” Iranian leaders would pose a major threat to the interests of the United States and its allies, including Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran, they argue, would be dangerous even if its leadership were entirely rational, because “after all, miscalculation, or errors in information, could still lead a perfectly rational adversary to strike first.”

The second level of debate which is also theoretical pertains to the consequences of proliferation, which is what happens when neighboring countries that feel threatened proceed to develop their own arsenal, which increases the probability of either a planned or unplanned nuclear exchange. U.S. policymakers deemed that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would produce a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the world’s most volatile region. It’s a logical concern as, for instance, the Saudis have already explicitly stated that they will examine a military nuclear option if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, because they will not tolerate a situation where Iran is armed with a nuclear weapon and they are not. It was confirmed by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, who noted that due to its deep mistrust and direct competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia views the advanced nuclear capabilities of Iran as a threat, to the extent that Riyadh may need to respond in kind by building equivalent enrichment capabilities to the precise levels that the Iranians are allowed, hedging against the possibility of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

Equally important, Egypt is another one of the regional countries that is often named as a state that may respond in kind to Iran’s nuclear breakout. Although Cairo has been more prudent than Saudi Arabia and Israel in raising the alarm over the risks of Iran’s nuclear program, it nevertheless fears the impact of Iran’s weaponization on its security and interests. Cairo’s profound mistrust of Iran’s nuclear ambitions means that it could seek to follow suit by building its own nuclear weapons. As Nabil Fahmy, a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat, has noted, if “ultimately Iran develops what is seen at least by some as a latent nuclear weapons capability,” Egypt would naturally react. “If [Egypt] feels threatened, it is legally obliged to pursue measures to ensure its national security.”

For the time being, the United States has extended a de facto nuclear umbrella protection to its allies in the region, because of the importance of their oil to the world economy. This is not an official position but, from what we understand, unofficial assurances have been given to these countries. However, with Iran’s weaponization, countries in the region may question the reliability of American security guarantees.