There is no such thing as an isolated nuclear-related event. One development feeds into the next, whether positive or negative. The history of the Bomb is about good streaks and bad streaks. Right now, we’re in a bad streak. But this could change with the next development.
There has never been a better ten-year period for rolling back nuclear dangers than from 1987 – 1997. In this decade, the INF Treaty banning entire categories of US and Soviet nuclear weapon delivery vehicles was negotiated, along with two treaties ushering in deep cuts in strategic forces. A new Russian government arrived on the scene that was not in thrall to nuclear weapons. There were steep drawdowns in the two largest nuclear stockpiles. Three states that inherited nuclear weapons after the demise of the Soviet Union voluntarily joined the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT was indefinitely extended, the CTBT was negotiated, and imaginative cooperative threat reduction programs were implemented in the former Soviet Union. Even the pursuit of nuclear abolition seemed possible, with distinguished groups of elders issuing blueprints for nuclear disarmament, such as the 1996 Canberra Commission report. Only the ten-year period between 1963 and 1973 comes within hailing distance to this level of accomplishment.
The pendulum shifted dramatically with the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Then, in depressing succession, the Senate voted not to consent to ratify the CTBT, the harbinger of sharper partisan divides in the United States over nuclear threat reduction. Proliferation challenges became worse in North Korea and Iran. Recidivism grew in Moscow. And the George W. Bush administration waged an NPT-corroding preventive war to take away WMD from Saddam Hussein that weren’t in his possession. Iran was this nightmarish war’s biggest beneficiary.
We may now be at another inflection point. If Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons can be significantly constrained and remains under intrusive monitoring, there might, at the very least, be a respite from negative momentum. If, however, the interim agreement falls apart or is not followed up by more meaningful constraints, other negative consequences will assuredly follow. The next decade of our nuclear future could well ride on this outcome.