A New Nuclear Era Is Coming

We’ve gone from the first decade since the advent of the atomic age to not yield a new nuclear-weapons state to the brink of war between the U.S. and Iran.

An atomic test explosio​n in Nevada, U.S.A., in 1955.
An atomic test explosio​n in Nevada, U.S.A., in 1955. (Camera Press / Pasan / RBO / Redux)

Iranian missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Deadly chaos in Iran. A sudden halt of the fight against the Islamic State. Utter confusion over whether U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, and even whether the United States still respects the laws of war. The fallout from the Trump administration’s killing of Qassem Soleimani has been swift and serious.

But one potential knock-on effect may not come into clear view for some time: the emergence of Iran as the next nuclear-weapons state, at the very moment when the world appears on the cusp of a more perilous nuclear age. It’s possible that the Reaper drone hovering over Baghdad’s airport last week destroyed not only an infamous Iranian general, but also the last hope of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Before he’d even said “good morning” during an address to the nation yesterday, Donald Trump vowed that Iran would “never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon” as long as he’s president of the United States. Yet as he urged other world powers to abandon the nuclear deal that they and the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, and that Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018, he offered no details on his plan to obtain a better deal.

When the Iranian government announced that it would suspend more (though not yet all) of its commitments under the nuclear agreement, in a move made after Soleimani’s death but planned beforehand, I recalled something Richard Burt, the U.S. diplomat behind the largest nuclear-weapons reduction in history, told me back in 2018. He noted that in the ’80s, when he negotiated the START I treaty with the Soviet Union, people were acutely aware of the existential dangers of a nuclear conflict. That’s no longer the case, he warned.

“No one is focusing on the fact that the existing framework for nuclear control and constraints is unraveling” and giving way to “unrestrained nuclear competition,” Burt observed. What we’re witnessing, he argued, is not some sort of creative destruction, in which an outdated Cold War framework is being discarded in favor of a more modern one. It’s “just destruction.”

Indeed, we’ve gone from the first decade since the advent of the atomic age to not yield a new nuclear-weapons state to, in the first days of 2020, the brink of war between the world’s leading nuclear power and a nuclear aspirant. The Trump administration is now poised to face at least two simultaneous nuclear crises along with an escalating and unprecedented tripartite nuclear-arms race, all of which will threaten the miraculously perfect track record of nuclear deterrence since 1945. Even if there are no nuclear tests or exchanges in the year ahead, the systems, accords, and norms that have helped mitigate the risks of nuclear conflict are vanishing, ushering in a more hazardous era that the United States won’t be able to control.

Consider what has transpired in the past year alone:

  • A newly unconstrained Iranian nuclear program: Iran has gradually cast off the shackles of the 2015 nuclear agreement following Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the pact, though it is still cooperating with international inspectors and leaving itself space to return to compliance if the United States lifts sanctions against Tehran. Experts estimate that with the recent steps away from the deal, the time that Iran would need to generate enough fuel for a nuclear bomb could decrease from roughly a year to a matter of months.
  • An emerging North Korean nuclear-weapons power: The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed over New Year’s to further advance his nuclear-weapons program, which is already likely sophisticated enough to threaten the whole world, after nuclear talks with the United States fell apart. The targeted killing of a top Iranian official, just a few years after the Iranians struck the nuclear accord with the United States, will probably only reinforce Kim’s belief that the only way for his regime to avoid a similar fate is to cling to its nuclear weapons. The former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho told me he’s concerned Kim could go well beyond that in the coming year, perhaps declaring that the U.S. economic blockade of his country has left his nation no choice but to survive by selling nuclear and missile technologies to other parties, including U.S. adversaries.
  • The specter of other countries going nuclear: Failing efforts to denuclearize North Korea and broker a better nuclear deal with Iran, coupled with concerns among U.S. allies about Trump’s commitment to providing for their security against these adversaries, have generated talk of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Saudi Arabia exploring nuclear weapons of their own rather than relying on America’s nuclear deterrent. In a forecast of possible geopolitical risks in 2020, published a couple of weeks before Soleimani’s killing, two scholars at the Atlantic Council predicted that South Korea and Australia, “already pondering nukes, may move to the next stage of actively considering them in 2020, as may Japan. If the Iran nuclear crisis is not resolved, expect the Saudis to buy or rent a nuke from Pakistan.”
  • Emboldened nuclear states in South Asia: Clashes between India and Pakistan in February 2019, sparked by an attack on Indian security forces by Pakistani militants in the disputed territory of Kashmir, didn’t go nuclear. But they did escalate to an Indian air strike on a terrorist training camp in Pakistan—an act the nuclear experts Nicholas Miller and Vipin Narang have described as “the first ever attack by a nuclear power against the undisputed sovereign territory of another nuclear power.” These were nuclear powers with growing arsenals, no less.
  • The demise of U.S.-Russian arms control: Blaming Russian violations of the agreement and the unfairness of China not being a party to it, the United States officially withdrew in August from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned an entire class of ground-launched nuclear weapons. The Trump administration has also signaled that it may not renew New START, a 2010 successor to START I that’s due to expire next year and limits the number of nuclear warheads that the U.S. and Russia can deploy on longer-range missiles. The hope is that this will free up the United States to reach a more comprehensive deal that includes China, but so far that idea seems fantastical. A New START lapse would do away with the only remaining nuclear-arms-control treaty. It would also mark the first time since 1972 that America and Russia, which together account for more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, haven’t had any legally binding restrictions on their nuclear forces.
  • The outbreak of great-power competition: The collapse of the INF Treaty coincides with heightened rivalry among the United States, China, and Russia, threatening to accelerate their budding nuclear-arms race. They’re already investing heavily in modernizing their nuclear arsenals and in new technologies such as hypersonic glide vehicles, which evade missile defenses; cyberweapons against command-and-control systems; and artificial intelligence to incorporate into those systems. Meanwhile, the U.S.-China trade war hacks away at the economic interdependence that has helped deter conflict between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.

These dismal circumstances follow substantial advances in halting the spread of nuclear weapons. In the ’60s, the decade in which the most new nuclear states emerged (France, China, and, unofficially, Israel), John F. Kennedy predicted that there would be “15 or 20” nuclear powers by 1975. Today there are nine, a rate of about one to two entrants into the nuclear club per decade, with the latest being North Korea in 2006. The nuclear-security scholar Jim Walsh has noted that three-fourths of countries that were once interested in developing nuclear weapons ultimately chose not to do so, and that since the ’90s, more states have given up nuclear weapons than acquired them.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world, moreover, has dropped from more than 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 today because of arms-control efforts. (That’s still enough, of course, to kill billions of people and envelop the world in a nuclear winter. When it comes to nuclear nonproliferation, progress is only heartening when expressed in relative terms.)

Most of the reductions in these weapons, however, occurred in the ’90s, and the pace of cuts has slowed ever since. We now live in a period when the barriers to acquiring nuclear weapons, a 75-year-old technology, are much lower than they once were. It’s also a time when, as James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College once explained to me, there are more nuclear-weapons states “of different shapes and sizes … [and] different trajectories,” making the “geometry” of nuclear deterrence “far more complex and harder to manage” than during the comparatively symmetrical Cold War.

Add to that the fading memory of the Cold War and fiercer competition among the great powers, and it’s no surprise that the guardrails on the world’s most destructive weapons are disappearing.

The past year may be remembered “as the turning point from an era of relative calm” to “the dawn of a dangerous new nuclear age,” Miller and Narang wrote last month in Foreign Affairs. The consequences could be “catastrophic.”