The Atlantic Politics Daily: The World’s Nuclear Guardrails Are Vanishing

The thin hope of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons may be gone. Plus: “I know the man well enough to know that’s something he dreamed up all by himself.”

It’s Thursday, January 9. 176 people died in a downed civilian airliner leaving Tehran on Wednesday. Details are still emerging.

In today’s newsletter: The dawning of the age of … nuclear proliferation? Plus: Virginia and the Equal Rights Amendment, and a theory of Trump’s thinking on Iran.


Anti-war activists protest in front of the White House. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / GETTY)

The decades-long era of nuclear nonproliferation might meet its stark end this year.

Among the most dangerous of the possible outcomes in the U.S.-Iran conflict is the emergence of another nuclear-weapons state, in a dangerous new nuclear age. The thin hope of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities may have been destroyed.

“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,” my colleague Uri Friedman writes.

Here’s how we got here—and what comes next.

1. The arms race of the atomic era calmed in the last decade. Nine countries ended up developing nuclear weapons (John F. Kennedy had predicted that there would be “15 or 20” countries by 1975). And the total number of nuclear weapons in the world plummeted from 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 today.

2. The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 seemed to gesture at the end of the country’s nuclear ambitions—at least in the short term. That agreement was dying even before the Qassem Soleimani strike, after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of it, leading Iran to renege some of the commitments it made under the deal. Now Iran may be a matter of months away from a working nuclear bomb.

3. It’s not just Iran. North Korea is also helping bring about this new era. Trump’s presidency began with name calling (Kim Jong Un was “Rocket Man;” Trump, a “dotard”). Then the two heads of state seemed to develop a better relationship (“he wrote me beautiful letters”). The relationship has since broken down spectacularly: North Korea has tested more missiles since May than perhaps any other year in its history.

Now experts predict a slew of countries may be pondering nukes as well.

—Saahil Desai


Supporters of the ERA in Richmond, Virginia today. (Steve Helber / AP)

The Equal Rights Amendment is back in the news. When an off-year election in Virginia flipped the state legislature blue last November, buzz revived around the concise amendment that’s struggled for decades to conjure up support from enough states.

Virginia is the 38th and final state needed to sign off on a constitutional revision “that was first proposed shortly after women won the right to vote but has, until recently, been dormant for decades,” Russell Berman wrote last fall.



1. “With some exceptions, a consensus appears to be emerging among war-powers scholars that the Soleimani strike was illegal.”

Though the Constitution grants Congress the power of declaring war, the executive branch has spent the last few decades swallowing up new war powers. Legal scholar Rebecca Ingber outlines the ways Congress can use its power of the purse and reform a 1973 law called the War Powers Resolution to wrestle back control.

2. “Far from being given an exhaustive record on which to make a determination, the Senate has received only part of the story from the House.”

Unlike the Clinton impeachment process, the Trump impeachment has seen no strenuous criminal investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine—and neither Trump nor key witnesses have testified under oath. That’s where the Senate comes in. That’s what trials are for, Paul Rosenzweig writes.

3.  “In the near future Democrats will likely need to offset any Republican gains in the Rust Belt by winning more elections in Sun Belt states.”

If 2020 Census projections hold steady, this century will see a swing in power from the Rust Belt states that many Democrats have been focused on winning over, to the southern Sun Belt states they are mostly neglecting, Ron Brownstein writes.


Donald Trump is seen on a television screen in the Pentagon briefing room as he delivers a statement about Iran at the White House. (ALEXANDER DRAGO / REUTERS)

Inside the Mind of Trump

In a span of a few days this week, Trump went from blasting off a tweet vowing to target cultural sites in Iran—which would be a war crime—to delivering a statement urging for de-escalation.

Our White House correspondent Peter Nicholas has three theories about how the president arrives at the ideas he arrives at, based on extensive reporting from the past week.

I posed the cultural-sites question to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump confidant who was briefed in advance on the Soleimani drone strike during a golf trip with the president at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays. Graham told me that he didn’t know where Trump got the idea.“I understand it’s an emotional time and he wants to create maximum deterrence. In my view, this doesn’t create deterrence. The goal is to divide the Iranian people from the regime. They’re already divided. I wouldn’t want to do anything to unite them.

A former White House official, who, after insisting that no one in the national-security establishment could possibly have advised the president to demolish, say, the ruins of Persepolis, told me: “I know the man well enough to know that’s something he dreamed up all by himself.”

Read the rest.


Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an associate editor on our Politics team and Christian Paz, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

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