Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons

author: Joseph Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund
published: Jan. 14, 2013,   recorded: February 2007,   views: 3506

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Joseph Cirincione delivers an energetic and at times impassioned primer on the standoff with Iran on its nuclear program, drawn in part from his latest book, The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, Spring 2007).

He offers a succinct ‘equation’ to describe what drives nations to acquire nuclear weapons: 3P+T+E, where power (security), prestige, politics (domestic), technology and economics combine in various ways to tip a nation toward joining the nuclear club. If one or more of these factors can be blunted somehow – for instance, through economic or political incentives, or preventing the free flow of fissile material and technology – then nuclear-inclined nations may be persuaded to change course.

The current tense situation with Iran throws such drivers into vivid relief. Cirincione first notes that Iran’s nuclear weapons development began under the U.S.-installed Shah, who was to be our “gendarme in the Gulf.” His program had the backing of many of today’s key U.S. political figures, including Vice President Cheney. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian leaders continued the program, acquiring technology from Pakistan, to counter Iraq, which had its own weapons program, and which invaded Iran in the early 80s. One million Iranians died in this war, and no one came to their aid, says Cirincione. “Iranians remember they were alone. You have to understand history to understand why Iran may want nuclear weapons now.”

But in a twist, Cirincione hypothesizes that Iran did not get far with its nuclear development and that it doesn’t currently have a secret weapons program. While Iran maintains it has the right to acquire nuclear technology, it won’t admit to its past weapons work. That would “blow their whole story line, that it’s against Islam to have nuclear weapons.” So they stall international inspections and hope “by obfuscation and delay they can drag out the issue, and the world will acquiesce to their plans.”

With Iran insisting on moving ahead with uranium enrichment, what are the options? Cirincione takes aim at the current U.S. default policy, “to muddle through.” He also scoffs at the idea of regime change in Iran, since Iraq teaches that “democratic transformation takes a long time.” He saves his most poisonous barbs for U.S. neoconservatives, who are hatching military plans to sweep through Iran. “This is nuts,” says Cirincione, a strategy driven by people with “messianic impulses” who perceive “one great Islamo-fascist threat.” Iran could respond to attack by shutting down oil traffic, or attacking U.S. servicemen in Iraq; rage in the Islamic world “would put at risk American economic, political and cultural institutions worldwide.” Plus, Iranians “would go pedal to the metal to get a bomb as quickly as they could.”

The alternative, says Cirincione, is to contain and engage: expand harsh sanctions against Iran and create fractures among Iranian political factions. We “back them into a corner, then give them a way out,” says Cirincione. “Negotiations aren’t appeasement, they’re statecraft. We should be having direct discussions with Iran.”

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