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A Guide To Today’s Inevitable Iran-Based Shockhorror

It appears that Iran succeeded in launching a satellite into space as part of an effort to expand its ballistic-missile capability into the thousands-of-miles-away range. Noah Shachtman at Danger Room points out that the Iranians have a history of misrepresenting their military technology, but nevertheless, it’s a worry. I haven’t seen conservatives freak out and say that this means President Obama is foolish to explore talks with Iran, but it’s not even noon.

Anyway, SteelJaw at the U.S. Naval Institute’s blog makes this point:

While one presumably successful space launch (still awaiting independent confirmation) does not a missile force make, the fact that the Iranian program marks this success, that it is outside the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and is known to have strong ties with the North Korean and Syrian programs, bodes ill for future proliferation schemes. As the US and its European partners gather this week to review the way ahead for continued engagement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, this shot, coming on the eve of that meeting and near the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution should give the assembled party pause to consider just what are Iran’s intentions, particularly vis-a-vis negotiated agreements and arms control.

It’s a good point. Whether the Iranians actually succeeded in the test or not, the fact that they announced launching their satellite on the eve of new nuclear-program negotiations is significant, and intended to put pressure on the western coalition.

But I’m not sure that SteelJaw is right that the test “bodes ill for future nonproliferation schemes.” It’s a challenge for them, to be sure. But consider that Iran has been encircled by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past five years, with the Bush administration dropping hints throughout its time in office that it might destabilize the regime as it did the two on Iran’s borders. Obviously, Iran’s nuclear ambitions go back to the Shah, so it’s not as if the United States in any way caused Iran to become more bellicose. But it’s an entirely rational decision on Iran’s part to bolster its defense capabilities after seeing the world’s remaining superpower adopt a more hostile posture to it.

And that’s a point independent of the strength of proliferation accords. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2002 and accelerated its nuclear weapons production in 2003 when it looked like the United States was going to overthrow the nuclear-incapable Saddam Hussein. At the time, many people worried that the North’s actions meant that nuclear nonproliferation regimes were doomed. But then the Bush administration flip-flopped, began intensive multilateral negotiations with the North led by Ambassador Chris Hill, and — with recent problems, to be sure — secured important disarmament steps. With Dennis Ross likely to explore bilateral dialogue with Iran, there’s no obvious reason why a similar round of arduous, frustrating, stop-and-start diplomacy can’t achieve similar results.

It’s true that nonproliferation regimes don’t look like appealing options to countries that perceive themselves, credibly, under constant threat. But getting rid of the persistent fear is the greater stumbling block to nonproliferation, not inherent weaknesses in the accords.

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